Treason against America is the only crime defined in the U.S. constitution. The offense, described as plotting, funding or otherwise supporting a war against the federal government, is rarely heard of in the 21st century, but that wasn’t always the case. From revolutionary turncoats to Soviet secret agents and Nazi propagandists, American history is littered with traitors. Here are ten of the most notorious…
10. Aaron Burr
Despite achieving political success as the third-ever Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr struggled to maintain that momentum. Having risen to the second-most powerful position in the country in 1801, by 1807 he was being tried for treason. How did it all go so wrong? Fans of the musical Hamilton may well know some of the answers.
Burr is perhaps best known for killing founding father Alexander Hamilton. The pair were archrivals and which ultimately led to a duel at dawn in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11 1804. Both men fired, but the Vice President’s bullet hit its target. Burr actually killed his opponent, and didn’t face any charges for the death. Winning the gunfight, though, cost the politician his reputation.
Following the duel, Burr’s political career was in tatters. That same year, the Vice President made a fateful decision, one that resulted in his standing trial. He wrote to the British Ambassador and told him that, with a little money and some ships, he could turn Louisiana, along with some of the central states, back to the King. And he didn’t stop there.
Hearing nothing from the British, Burr changed his goal. Collecting co-conspirators and supplies, the Vice President allegedly planned to start his own empire. The territory was to encompass parts of Mexico and the western United States. But one of his gang got cold feet. General James Wilkinson told President Thomas Jefferson of the plot, and Burr was tried for treason. He was acquitted, however, due to the provision in the constitution that requires two witnesses for a conviction.
9. Mildred Gillars a.k.a. Axis Sally
Born in Maine in 1900, Mildred Gillars would go on to become one of the most recognizable voices of the Second World War. A radio broadcaster during the conflict, she could be heard on the airwaves for years during the conflict. But she wasn’t cheering on the American troops. Far from it. So how did an aspiring actress end up working for the Germans?
Having scored a few minor theatrical roles with U.S. touring companies, Gillars set her sights on Europe. She landed in Germany in 1934, intent on traveling to Dresden to study music. Instead though, she was scouted by Radio Berlin for her attractive voice and the fact that she could speak English. But when the State Department advised Americans to leave Germany in 1941, she stayed.
From there, Gillars’ regular broadcasts took on something of a darker tone. Playing popular American hits, the tunes were interspersed with what can only be described as psychological warfare against her fellow countrymen. During hundreds of broadcasts, she denigrated their girlfriends and demoralized them with tales of horror and defeat. But, perhaps worst of all, during her shows she pretended to have lost a son during the conflict.
The U.S. soldiers nicknamed Gillars “Axis Sally,” and when she was spotted in Berlin after the war, treason charges weren’t far behind. In 1947, the broadcaster was charged with multiple counts of treason, but convicted of just one. Her sentence included a $10,000 fine and a minimum of a decade in jail. On her release 12 years later, she moved to Ohio and became a nun.
8. The Whiskey Rebellion
This 18th century uprising led to the only occasion in American history that a serving president donned a uniform to physically carry out his Commander-in-Chief duties. In fact, some were worried the rebellion would lead to another revolution. But what on earth could have forced the president into leading troops into battle? Of course, it was all to do with taxes.
Back in the 1700s, farmers used up any excess grain by turning it into alcohol. The resultant beverage, made from rye, corn or wheat was known as American whiskey. Around 1791, though, the government decided that those distillers had to pay taxes on the volume of liquor they produced. And it’s this new levy that sparked what became the Whiskey Rebellion.
Initially, state officials sent to collect these taxes were threatened and refusal to pay was commonplace. As the government persisted with the levy, resistance to it became violent. The now-sizable rebellion had grown to the point where President Washington himself decided to put an end to the conflict. After gathering militiamen from several states, in 1794 he led the troops into several bloody battles.
In the end, it took an enormous federal effort to quell the rebellion. Seen as the first real test of the newly-formed United States government, Washington eventually emerged victorious. As a result, 24 of the rebel leaders were indicted on treason charges. Only ten were apprehended and, of those, two were sentenced to death. Ever the honorable politician, Washington pardoned them both.
7. Robert Hanssen
In an incident described by some as the worst intelligence breach in American history, the story of Robert Hanssen took everyone by surprise. Eventually tried for treason in 2001, by then he’d been a traitor for over two decades. And believe it or not, he was an F.B.I. agent the entire time.
Over the course of those 20-odd years, Hanssen worked as the liaison between the office that deals with spies on American soil and the bureau. As a result, he was privy to some very classified information. Perhaps due to his close links with Russia, he became a spy for the Soviet secret service in 1979. And from there, he fed them all kinds of sensitive material.
Ranging from American government plans for dealing with a Soviet nuclear attack to the listening post the U.S. had established under the U.S.S.R.’s embassy, Hanssen’s treachery knew no bounds. He also leaked the identity of every agent, including defectors, in contact with the F.B.I., leading to several deaths. And while the bureau knew they had a mole, they were clueless as to who it might be.
Eventually, the F.B.I. paid a former Russian intelligence agent seven million dollars to reveal Hanssen’s identity . The traitor, it appears, had been paid over one million dollars — plus diamonds — for selling out his country, but according to colleagues, he wasn’t in it for the money. When questioned, they later said he just loved being a spy. Subsequently charged with 15 counts of treason, Hanssen pled guilty to them all. The former F.B.I. agent is currently serving a life sentence without parole for his crimes.
6. Ezra Pound
Noted critic and award-winning poet, Ezra Pound is considered by many to have had an enormous influence on American and English literature during the 20th century. For others, though, Pound was a traitor and a fascist. In fact, he was indicted on two separate occasions for the crime of treason, but tried only once. And at one point, he was legally considered to have an unsound mind. So what happened?
Having moved to Italy in 1924, Pound became increasingly radical in his political affiliations. Fascism was on the rise throughout Italy in the 1930s and its leader, Benito Mussolini, caught the author’s attention. Pound was also a vocal Hitler supporter and eventually, the author became involved in propaganda.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Mussolini put Pound’s enthusiasm for the cause to use. The author became an outspoken radio broadcaster, heavily critical of the U.S. and, unsurprisingly, very much in support of fascism. As a result, the poet and critic was tried for treason against America.
Pound’s trial was held in 1946. Having made hundreds of propaganda broadcasts, perhaps conviction was inevitable. At the end of the evidence, the 12 jurors retired to deliberate their verdict. It took them all of three minutes. Their opinion? That the author was clearly of “unsound mind,” and, therefore unfit to stand trial. He then spent 12 years in a mental health institution.
5. James Wilkinson
The eagle-eyed among you may well have spotted the name James Wilkinson elsewhere on this list. Yup, he is, in fact, the General Wilkinson who exposed the empire-building plot of Aaron Burr. But the career military officer is here in his own right, and could have featured in this treasonous group several times over. So why is his name not more famous? Before we get into that, let’s have a look at the man’s most heinous behavior.
Wilkinson has been described as a double-dealer with a talent for scandal and a penchant for treason.
Indeed, his treasonous career began in earnest while fighting the American Revolutionary war. On the same side as future president George Washington, he and a group of fellow officers plotted to have Washington’s command revoked. They were, of course, unsuccessful. But Wilkinson’s illicit behavior didn’t end there.
Despite that plot to remove Washington, Wilkinson somehow kept his commission after the war. Then, starting in 1787, the officer began receiving payments from the Spanish Government. Why? To protect their interests in America. Known to his paymasters as “Number 13,” they even gave him a pension.
Wilkinson, it appears, was so good at hiding his duplicity that he even worked against the Spanish in his official capacity. But, despite all the treasonous activity – far too voluminous to document here – he was never convicted. In fact, the extent of Wilkinson’s betrayal only came to light following his death. President Roosevelt later said of him, “In all our history, there has been no more despicable character.”
4. Martin James Monti
This little-known American army officer holds a very special distinction, something that, perhaps, many Americans would have deemed not just unthinkable, but impossible. This incredible story all started in 1944. During that summer, 23-year-old Martin James Monti, a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Military, went AWOL. Being absent without leave is, of course, an offense in itself. But Monti’s betrayal had only just begun.
Monti wasn’t just on the run from the military. Far from it, in fact. He stowed away on an aircraft heading from what is now Pakistan to North Africa, before heading on to the U.S Airbase in the Italian city of Naples. From there, he managed to get hold of a Lockheed Lightning, a plane that had been modified for reconnaissance. He flew the craft off the base unopposed. Monti then made his way to Milan.
After landing in Milan, Monti did something no one in the U.S. military had ever willingly done. He defected to the Nazis. You read that right. The former 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S Army is the only officer to switch sides during World War II. It took some time for the Germans to be convinced of his sincerity, but eventually they put him to work.
Monti joined the S.S., where he worked as a proto-psychological operations specialist, dropping propaganda leaflets aimed at the Allies. He was picked up two days after Germany’s surrender, in full Nazi officer regalia, claiming to be an escaped POW. The former U.S. Army officer eventually pleaded guilty to 21 charges of treason and received 25 years imprisonment.
3. Thomas Dorr
In 1842, the population of Rhode Island did something astonishing. Suffering under what they saw as a pre-revolution state administration, they decided to take matters into their own hands. In a very democratic twist, residents held an election and chose a new governor, Thomas Dorr — leader of a group known as the People’s Party — along with a new legislature. There was, however, one small problem.
At that time, Rhode Island already had a governor and legislature. In addition, no election had been sanctioned by the state. As a result, the incumbent, Samuel King, refused to acknowledge his supposed successor. Which meant that, for a time, the state had two competing administrations and a pair of governors. This unprecedented situation could not be allowed to continue.
While Dorr was in Washington attempting to drum up support for his rebel administration, King made his move. He indicted him for treason. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his so-called treason, the alternative governor’s situation appeared dire. But then the Supreme Court stepped in.
In 1844, the highest court in the land ruled that there’s no such thing as treason against a state. As a result, Dorr received a pardon in 1845. But his infamy didn’t end there. Many of the proposed reforms he ran on were implemented, and he is now included in the official list of Rhode Island governors.
2. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Following the violent conflict of the Second World War came a more political clash — an insidious conflict known as the Cold War. With America on one side and the then-U.S.S.R. on the other, this clash of ideologies led to many notorious incidents. But the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is notable for many reasons.
In 1951, the couple were both put on trial following charges of espionage. The Rosenbergs were paid-up members of the American arm of the Communist Party, and at one point, they decided to pass state secrets to the Soviets. Ethel just happened to be related to a scientist working on The Manhattan Project, the U.S.’s nuclear weapons development, which made them perfect spy material.
During the Rosenberg’s 1951 trial, the couple were accused of passing secrets about the atomic bomb program to the U.S.S.R. Dubbed the trial of the century, the presiding judge summed up their crimes as “worse than murder.” Both Julius and Ethel were convicted and sentenced to death for espionage, making them the first civilians executed under the new spying laws. But the firsts don’t end there.
The Rosenbergs’ deaths in the electric chair in 1953 at New York’s Sing Sing prison also made Ethel’s name, in gruesome fashion. Following her demise, she became the first woman executed by the state for nearly a century. The last female to face that fate was Mary Surratt, convicted and hanged in 1865 for her still debated — part in President Lincoln’s assassination.
1. Benedict Arnold
Perhaps America’s most famous traitor, the name Benedict Arnold has become a byword for treachery. But while you may know the name, you might not be aware of the whole story. Having joined the fight for independence during the American Revolution, Arnold initially sided with his fellow citizens. But that didn’t last long.
Put in charge of New York’s West Point fort, Arnold did the unthinkable. Unbeknown to the Americans, he contacted the British and offered to surrender the base to them. To make matters worse, he then switched allegiance to the King and was given a sizable signing bonus. The U.S. forces were completely unaware of the plot, until they arrested an enemy major carrying a letter from the traitor, detailing his plan in 1780.
Having discovered Arnold’s plot, George Washington dispatched troops, charging them with his immediate capture. The traitor, though, managed to evade them with a little help from his new English masters. Indeed, he took refuge on the Hudson River, hiding on a British ship that was moored there.
From there, Arnold was given the position of Brigadier General. The British made good use of their new acquisition’s knowledge of the United states, putting him front and center on raids on Virginia and Connecticut during the war. He even retired with a sizable British pension. And yet, despite his treachery, America’s most famous traitor never faced a jury. He remains convicted only in the court of public opinion.