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Levying War

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Levying War

Early judicial interpretation of the meaning of treason in terms of levying war was conditioned by the partisan struggles of the early nineteenth century, in which were involved the treason trials of Aaron Burr and his associates. In Ex parte Bollman,1339 which involved two of Burr’s confederates, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for himself and three other Justices, confined the meaning of levying war to the actual waging of war. “However flagitious may be the crime of conspiring to subvert by force the government of our country, such conspiracy is not treason. To conspire to levy war, and actually to levy war, are distinct offences. The first must be brought into open action by the assemblage of men for a purpose treasonable in itself, or the fact of levying war cannot have been committed. So far has this principle been carried, that . . . it has been determined that the actual enlistment of men to serve against the government does not amount to levying of war.” Chief Justice Marshall was careful, however, to state that the Court did not mean that no person could be guilty of this crime who had not appeared in arms against the country. “On the contrary, if it be actually levied, that is, if a body of men be actually assembled for the purpose of effecting by force a treasonable purpose, all those who perform any part, however minute, or however remote from the scene of action, and who are actually leagued in the general conspiracy, are to be considered as traitors. But there must be an actual assembling of men, for the treasonable purpose, to constitute a levying of war.”

1335 Id. “[T]he record does suggest that the clause was intended to guarantee nonviolent political processes against prosecution under any theory or charge, the burden of which was the allegedly seditious character of the conduct in question. The most obviously restrictive feature of the constitutional definition is its omission of any provision analogous to that branch of the Statute of Edward III which punished treason by compassing the death of the king. In a narrow sense, this provision perhaps had no proper analogue in a republic. However, to interpret the silence of the treason clause in this way alone does justice neither to the technical proficiency of the Philadelphia draftsmen nor to the practical statecraft and knowledge of English political history among the Framers and proponents of the Constitution. The charge of compassing the king’s death had been the principal instrument by which ‘treason’ had been used to suppress a wide range of political opposition, from acts obviously dangerous to order and likely in fact to lead to the king’s death to the mere speaking or writing of views restrictive of the royal authority.” Id. at 152-53.

1336 The clause does not, however, prevent Congress from specifying other crimes of a subversive nature and prescribing punishment, so long as Congress is not merely attempting to evade the restrictions of the treason clause. E.g., Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75, 126 (1807); Wimmer v. United States, 264 Fed. 11, 12-13 (6th Cir. 1920), cert den., 253 U.S. 494 (1920).

1337 By the requirement of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court.

1338 Cl. 2, infra, “Corruption of the Blood and Forfeiture”.

1339 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75 (1807).

On the basis of these considerations and due to the fact that no part of the crime charged had been committed in the District of Columbia, the Court held that Bollman and Swartwout could not be tried in the District, and ordered their discharge. Marshall continued by saying that “the crime of treason should not be extended by construction to doubtful cases” and concluded that no conspiracy for overturning the Government and “no enlisting of men to effect it, would be an actual levying of war.”1340

The Burr Trial.—Not long afterward, the Chief Justice went to Richmond to preside over the trial of Aaron Burr himself. His ruling1341 denying a motion to introduce certain collateral evidence bearing on Burr’s activities is significant both for rendering the latter’s acquittal inevitable and for the qualifications and exceptions made to the Bollman decision. In brief, this ruling held that Burr, who had not been present at the assemblage on Blennerhassett’s Island, could be convicted of advising or procuring a levying of war only upon the testimony of two witnesses to his having procured the assemblage. This operation having been covert, such testimony was naturally unobtainable. The net effect of Marshall’s pronouncements was to make it extremely difficult to convict one of levying war against the United States short of the conduct of or personal participation in actual hostilities.1342

1340 8 U.S. at 126-27.

1341 United States v. Burr, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 469, Appx. (1807).

1342 There have been a number of lower court cases in some of which convictions were obtained. As a result of the Whiskey Rebellion, convictions of treason were obtained on the basis of the ruling that forcible resistance to the enforcement of the revenue laws was a constructive levying of war. United States v. Vigol, 29 Fed. Cas. 376 (No. 16621) (C.C.D. Pa. 1795); United States v. Mitchell, 26 Fed. Cas. 1277 (No. 15788) (C.C.D. Pa. 1795). After conviction, the defendants were pardoned. See also for the same ruling in a different situation the Case of Fries, 9 Fed. Cas. 826, 924 (Nos. 5126, 5127) (C.C.D. Pa. 1799, 1800). The defendant was again pardoned after conviction. About a half century later participation in forcible resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law was held not to be a constructive levying of war. United States v. Hanway, 26 Fed. Cas. 105 (No. 15299) (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1851). Although the United States Government regarded the activities of the Confederate States as a levying of war, the President by Amnesty Proclamation of December 25, 1868, pardoned all those who had participated on the southern side in the Civil War. In applying the Captured and Abandoned Property Act of 1863 (12 Stat. 820) in a civil proceeding, the Court declared that the foundation of the Confederacy was treason against the United States. Sprott v. United States, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 459 (1875). See also Hanauer v. Doane, 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 342 (1871); Thorington v. Smith, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 1 (1869); Young v. United States, 97 U.S. 39 (1878). These four cases bring in the concept of adhering to the enemy and giving him aid and comfort, but these are not criminal cases and deal with attempts to recover property under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act by persons who claimed that they had given no aid or comfort to the enemy. These cases are not, therefore, an interpretation of the Constitution.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014