The State as Victim: Treason and the Paradox of American Criminal Law

8 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2009 Last revised: 31 Dec 2009

See all articles by Markus D. Dubber

Markus D. Dubber

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law; University of Toronto - Centre for Ethics

Date Written: December 21, 2009


The American law of treason has remained unchanged since the Founding Era of the New Republic. The Founding Era's conception of treason itself did not significantly revise that reflected in the English Treason Act of 1351. Treason always was, and in US law remains to this day, the breach of the duty of allegiance that the subject owes the sovereign, any sovereign.

What's more, treason is paradigmatic of American criminal law because it is both the ultimate victimless and the ultimate victimful crime. Treason is victimful because it is the offense most directly aimed at the authority of the state, and the state, as the abstract holder of amorphous sovereignty, is the ultimate victim of crime conceptualized as an offense against the sovereign. At the same time, treason is the ultimate victimless offense because it is explicitly not aimed at a particular person (say, the English king) and, more fundamentally, because the very existence of the state, and of the sovereignty it wields, is denied.

In other words, as both victimless and victimful, treason highlights the central paradox at the heart of American criminal law. The state, and its sovereignty, are both nowhere and everywhere, and so is treason, as the ultimate offense against the state as sovereign.

Keywords: treason, offenses against the state, criminal law, English criminal law, allegiance, fealty, paterfamilias

JEL Classification: K14, K30

Suggested Citation

Dubber, Markus D., The State as Victim: Treason and the Paradox of American Criminal Law (December 21, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Markus D. Dubber (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

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Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5


University of Toronto - Centre for Ethics ( email )

6 Hoskin Avenue
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1H8


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