The Trials of Allegiance


October 26, 2020
by Ken Daigler Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution by Carlton F. W. Larson (New York : Oxford University Press, 2019)

Whether you describe the American Revolution as a civil war or an insurgency, the result for many families and friends was the same: split loyalties. This reality has caused University of California Law Professor Carlton F. W. Larson to try and explain how the concept of “treason” was interpreted and applied legally from the early days of the colonies through the 1787 Constitution process. His book is much like a legal brief, with extensive footnotes (just under one hundred pages) and some charts focused on various cases in the colony of Pennsylvania before, during and just after the war. That it is well researched is obvious, and considering its content the book is quite well written and easy to read. But, it is not light reading.

It is a useful addition to understanding how “treason” crimes were handled during the war. It begins by noting that all such crimes were based on English law. It focuses on Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia for court examples, and does not address specifically the betrayal of Gen. Benedict Arnold nor mention the activities of John Jay and the New York Committee and First Commission for Detecting Conspiracies.

Larson begins by discussing early colonial use of the “treason” laws on a variety of crimes not directly related to what we understand today as treason. He cites several examples of pre-war incidents where treason crimes were prosecuted. As he moves forward chronologically, he discusses the issue facing the governments, both the Continental Congress and the states’, regarding how to define and enforce treason as a crime when in reality those doing so were traitors to their own country, Britain. This confusion continues until the Declaration of Independence established the colonies as a nation and thus creates a clear separation of where one’s loyalty should lie.

However, Larson goes on to show that at both the Congress and state levels, between the courts and the various Committees seeking Tories, there is little appetite for convicting people of treason and condemning them to death. In fact, where civilians were involved, the usual business, social and political ties of the individuals accused played a role in how they were treated. For example in Philadelphia, numerous Tories, including the father of Arnold’s wife, were welcomed back into the business and political community once the war ended. Indeed, prosecution of crimes related to treason, either to the state or the nation, reduced sharply as the armed conflict faded into a peaceful solution.

Considering the importance of the term “treason,” and that it had to be redefined for political reasons as the colonies sought independence from Britain, the issues raised in this book are very useful in understanding the legal aspects required to justify and maintain the nation created by the American Revolution. Also, the historical hesitation of American authorities to use the harsh punishments related to the crime of treason reflects current traditional American cultural reserve towards counterintelligence activities and prosecution.

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