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Looking to the Founders: Benjamin Church, Edward Snowden, and Defining Treason

by David Yee, published

Without a doubt, almost every American knows the name Benedict Arnold. Arnold was the worst form of traitor: one who does the damage, then flees without taking responsibility for their actions.

But another largely unknown traitor was among the highest ranks in the Continental Army, holding the post equivalent to a modern Surgeon General. This unknown traitor tells us a lot about the generation and times of the Founders, the legal system of crime and punishment, but more importantly, how we should see those who commit treason today.

The Unknown Traitor

If we were to look at the life and acts of Dr. Benjamin Church prior to 1775, we would see a patriot, a devoted man of medicine, and hero of the Revolution.

Church was a fifth-generation American, whose early ancestor was the son-in-law of Richard Warren, the twelfth signer of the Mayflower Compact in 1620.

As an active member in Boston's Sons of Liberty, Church gained substantial clout and trust, entering into the closest inner circle of patriots. Years after the war, Paul Revere reminisced:

We were so careful our meetings should be kept Secret that every time we met, every person present swore upon the Bible that they would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, and Doctors Warren, Church, and one or two more.

When Church's disloyalty was announced to the Continental Congress, John Adams burst into a lengthy prose of indignation and sorrow:

A Man of Genius, of Learning, of Family, of Character: A Writer of Liberty Songs, and good ones too: A Speaker of Liberty Orations: A Member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence: A Member of the Massachusetts Congress: An Agent from that Congress to the Continental Congress: A Member of the House: A Director General of the Hospital and Surgeon General: Surgeon General! Good God! What shall we say of Human Nature? What shall we say of American Patriots?

With such an impressive past, it's hard to believe that such a man could betray his country.

The Betrayal

In July 1775, Church sent a ciphered message to Major Cane, a British officer in Boston. An ex-mistress carried the letter, but it was intercepted by another jealous former lover, who turned it over to the Continental Army.

Once decoded, Church was arrested and convicted by court martial. Church had enough advance notice that he could have fled, but stood to face the charges.

In particular, Church claimed he was helping the patriot cause by giving false information to the enemy, and in fact, his letter contained significantly inflated numbers of Continental artillery, soldiers, and supplies.

Church argued that his actions were an attempt to keep the British from attacking -- during this time Washington's army was desperately under-supplied and short of ammunition.

Once convicted by the court martial, Washington turned the matter over to the Continental Congress for further prosecution and sentencing.

With this one letter as the only evidence, he was convicted on one count of criminal correspondence with the enemy, and sentenced to an indefinite detention in solitary confinement by a resolution of the Continental Congress:

That Doctor Church be close confined in some secure jail in the Colony of Connecticut, without use of pen, ink and paper, and that no person be allowed to converse with him except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate of the town or the sheriff of the county where he is confined, and in the English language, until further orders from this or a future Congress.

He was later transferred to Massachusetts and remained imprisoned until 1778, when he was listed in the Massachusetts Banishment Act. He left America shortly thereafter -- on a ship that was doomed to be lost at sea.

What We Should Learn From Dr. Church

In 2013, Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the CIA, began to leak information to the mainstream media about the extent of government surveillance on American allies.

In May 2013, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, and it was there that he began to leak information to the media. Snowden eventually fled to Russia, where he is today with permanent resident status.

Some call Snowden a hero, but others see his actions as those of a traitor and a coward.

Even if his actions were done with the purest of intention, he failed miserably in one regard. If you are going to expose your nation to embarrassment and criticism, you shouldn't compound it by running and hiding under the protection of our "enemies."

Snowden brought to light some amazing and appalling actions of our government. While those actions have done significant damage to our relationships with traditional allies, the spying program needed to be brought into question.

But he could have at least attempted to release the information to Senate and House oversight committee members before going to the press. These elected members of our government have security clearance to handle information without revealing secrets to our enemies, and were the ones in a position to actually rein in those spying programs.

Would Snowden have gone to jail if he went through the proper authorities to reveal the government's spying program? Possibly. But one thing is for certain, short of a miraculous pardon, he will never again set foot in America (or any nation with mutual extradition treaties) without being imprisoned.

Two lessons we should learn from Dr. Benjamin Church's life. First, even with the purest of motives and intents, there's a fine line between misguided patriotism and treason. Second, we need to have the courage to be judged for our actions and accept the consequences, and not act like a fugitive from justice when we take a risk in the name of patriotism.

Author's note: A fascinating full account of Dr. Benjamin Church's treason can be found at the Cambridge Historical Society website

Photo Credit: Rena Schild /

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