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Who’s the traitor now?
John Harrington offers guidance
Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
John Harrington wrote these lines in the age of Elizabeth I of England. Harrington (or Harington) fell in and out of the queen’s favor, precisely for edgy adages like the above. Monarchs of that era commonly charged their enemies with treason; Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had two of his wives (one of them Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn) executed for treason, defined as loss of affection. During Elizabeth’s own reign, conversion to Roman Catholicism was a treasonable offense. Harrington’s cheeky couplet made light of what was supposed to be the most heinous crime an English man or woman could commit.
The reason it rankled was that it was patently true. In Harrington’s time, successful treason gave rise to new dynasties; having prospered, the new dynasties defined away the crime that created them. In American history treason produced the United States itself, created by a successful war against Britain. As long as the outcome of the war remained in question, the threat of prosecution for treason, and of execution by being drawn and quartered, hung over Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and the other Patriots. Only after the British acknowledged defeat via the Treaty of Paris did the cloud lift.
Treason is typically a crime of commission: you have do something grievous, like taking arms against your country or aiding those in arms. During the American Revolution, however, treason became a crime of omission for Loyalists such as William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin. William Franklin was the royally appointed governor of New Jersey, and he refused to accept that New Jersey was no longer a colony. For this he was branded a traitor, driven from office and arrested and imprisoned. He might have been executed if not for fear that the British would start executing Patriots they had captured.
At the end of the war, one set of the traitors became heroes; the other, refugees. Washington, Benjamin Franklin and their comrades were lionized as fathers of their country; William Franklin and the other Loyalists were forgotten if they were lucky, hounded to their graves if they weren’t.
Fifty years later, Americans in Texas staged an uprising against the government of Mexico, which then held title to Texas. The American rebels summoned the “spirit of ’76”; the Texas declaration of independence cribbed shamelessly from the American Declaration of Independence. Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna denounced the rebels as traitors and at the Alamo refused to grant quarter, killing the defenders to the last man. Following the surrender of a rebel force at Goliad, Santa Anna ordered the execution of them all.
Had the Texas treason failed, traitors the Texans would have remained. But they finally defeated Santa Anna, and the rebels became heroes to generations of Texans, and the defenders of the Alamo were repositioned as martyrs to Texan and American liberty.
In the early 1860s, leaders in eleven Southern states tried to extend the streak of American traitors becoming heroes. But they failed the Harrington test: their treason didn’t prosper. Under American law they weren’t actually traitors, as explained here. But in the North they were widely branded as traitors, a label that sticks to them more stubbornly than ever these days.
Revolutionaries in Russia and China in the twentieth centuries were traitors to the regimes they assailed, until they became heroes as the founders of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, by which time their enemies, the defenders of the old regimes, had been classed as traitors and often executed as such.
In America in the twenty-first century, the treason label has suffused contemporary political conversation. Donald Trump called treason on his critics countless times, while many of those critics saw treason in Trump’s brazen efforts to steal the 2020 election, and in his supporters’ assault on the Capitol in January 2021.
John Harrington, in whatever realm his ghost happens to inhabit, presumably is withholding judgment. Neither side has definitively prospered, and until one does, the treason label will be applied as arbitrarily as ever.
Footnote: Harrington is also credited with inventing an improved version of the flush toilet. This accomplishment, which made the lives of even royalty more comfortable, might have contributed to Elizabeth’s willingness to overlook his impudence. Poets are important, but plumbers are essential.