From USA vs Rahman
In the late colonial period, as today, the charge of treason carried a “peculiar intimidation and stigma” with considerable “potentialities . . . as a political epithet.”
At the time of the drafting of the Constitution treason was punishable not only by death, but by an exceptionally cruel method of execution designed to enhance the suffering of the traitor.
William Blackstone in his Commentaries observed that the punishment for treason is “terrible in that the traitor is hanged by the neck, then cut down alive, that his entrails are then taken out, and burned, while he is yet alive,” and “that his head is cut off, and that his body is then divided into four parts.”
The Framers formulated the Treason Clause as a protection against the promiscuous resort to the stigmatizing label of “traitor” which carries such a horrifying penalty. Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention regarded the effort to limit the brutal “traitors death” penalty for subversive crimes as the central motive for the Constitution’s restrictive definition of treason.
The Treason Clause can be interpreted as applying only to charges denominated as “treason” and the Framers intended to limit a ” traitor’s death” for alleged subversion to instances of levying war against the United States, or adhering to enemies of the United States. In contrast, lesser subversive offenses were penalized by non-capital punishments or less brutal modes of execution.
Today treason continues to be punishable by death, while seditious conspiracy commands a maximum penalty of twenty years imprisonment.
The Supreme Court has identified, but not resolved, the question of whether the Treason Clause applies to offenses that include all the elements of treason but are not branded as such, where a defendant who engaged in subversive conduct might be tried for a crime involving all the elements of treason, but under a different name and without the constitutional protection of the Treason Clause.
None of the American born citizens who have helped terrorist organizations plan attacks, some who have traveled overseas to enemy training camps, have ever been convicted of treason against the United States.