The Trials of Allegiance examines the law of treason during the American Revolution: a convulsive, violent civil war in which nearly everyone could be considered a traitor, either to Great Britain or to America.
Drawing from extensive archival research in Pennsylvania, one of the main centers of the revolution, Carlton Larson provides the most comprehensive analysis yet of the treason prosecutions brought by Americans against British adherents: through committees of safety, military tribunals, and ordinary criminal trials. Although popular rhetoric against traitors was pervasive in Pennsylvania, jurors consistently viewed treason defendants not as incorrigibly evil, but as fellow Americans who had made a political mistake. This book explains the repeated and violently controversial pattern of acquittals. Juries were carefully selected in ways that benefited the defendants, and jurors refused to accept the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for treason. The American Revolution, unlike many others, would not be enforced with the gallows.
More broadly, Larson explores how the Revolution's treason trials shaped American national identity and perceptions of national allegiance. He concludes with the adoption of the Treason Clause of the United States Constitution, which was immediately put to use in the early 1790s in response to the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries's Rebellion.
In taking a fresh look at these formative events, The Trials of Allegiance reframes how we think about treason in American history, up to and including the present.