High Treason

The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject. 

Today, we’ll talk about the seriousness of the Declaration of Independence and what it meant to sign it.

On July 4, 1776, the men who signed the Declaration of Independence violated the third law of High Treason:

“If a man do levy war against the lord our king in his realm.”

[You can view the other types of High Treason here.  They include plotting regicide, raping a royal female, and harboring the king’s enemies.]

The Declaration of Independence signers faced the death penalty.  It wasn’t just death, either.  It was a horrible, gruesome execution.  It included punishments extending to their surviving families.


For High Treason, the severest of all capital crimes, 18th century law ordered:

  1. That the offender be drawn to the gallows (not carried or allowed to walk).  To save him the extreme torment of being dragged on pavement, a sledge or a hurdle would be allowed.
  2. That he be hanged by the neck and cut down alive.
  3. That his entrails be removed and burned while he is still alive.
  4. That his head be cut off.
  5. That his body be divided in quarters (four parts).
  6. That the head and quarters be at the kings disposal.

[Note: The above described punishment was intended for men only.  Women were to be drawn to the gallows and burned alive.]

As mentioned above, the suffering extended to the offender’s family through “forfeiture” and “corruption of blood.”  Put in terms we can understand:

  1. Offenders were forced to turn over all their monetary funds and property to the state.
  2. The offender’s direct descendants would be barred from owning property or doing business.

[Again, if you’d like to read these laws, the history of English law is online.  This links to the page on high treason in the 18th century.  This links to the home page.]


The Declaration of Independence signers believed so fervently in American independence they were willing to gamble their lives and the welfare of their families.  They knew the horror they could face as well as you or I know the charges for modern crimes.

At the same time, they knew nothing worth having was easy or free.  The important things are worth fighting to the death to accomplish.  The Declaration’s signers did achieve what they hoped, and, today, we celebrate.

As we eat barbecue, enjoy our family and friends, and pop fireworks today, let’s take a moment to appreciate the significance of those fifty-six signatures.  Let’s think about these real people and what they had at risk.

The youngest of the signers was Edward Rutledge, age twenty-six.  The oldest of them was Benjamin Franklin, age seventy.  Two future presidents, John Adams (2nd president) and Thomas Jefferson (3rd president) signed the Declaration of Independence.  The bravery of these men is the foundation on which this country is built.



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