Source: From Alexander Hamilton to Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, 1780 October 11

... [Major John André] he ought to be considered as a spy and according to the laws and usages of nations to suffer death; which was executed two days after.
[11]   Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less. The first step he took after his capture was to write a letter to General Washington conceived in terms of dignity without insolence and apology without meanness.9

'Perhaps' sounds like a hedge word; so I just ignore it in this question. Perhaps (repetition intended) the cited text confuses me because negatives still mangle my reading comprehension.

1. What does with more justice mean? Is this ambiguous?
1.1. That never ... did any man suffer a more deserved, rightful death (because André was spying)?
1.2. Or that André suffered [= tolerated (See ODO Defn 2)] death 'like a brave man' ?

2. If 1.2 is right, then is justice here the aptest word? Or did its meanings differ in the 1700s?

3. How do you determine or deduce the antecedent of it?

Footnote: I tried a gloss from p 8, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation, By Caleb Crain PhD. I first encountered the excerpt above on Wikipedia.

  • The two answers have thrown down a gauntlet of interpretation! – Morgan Horse Mar 12 '15 at 18:53

Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less.

  1. In general, the phrase with more justice meant "more appropriately" close to the current sense of justice in ODO:

1.1 The quality of being fair and reasonable:

This can be seen by examining the specific occurrences of the phrase in the Corpus from 1700-1820. As an example, from the 1797 The Encyclopedia Britannica entry under Odontalgia, the Toothache:

The Peruvian bark has also been recommended, and perhaps with more justice, on account [of] its tonic and antiseptic powers ; but very often all these remedies will fail, and the only infallible cure is to draw the tooth.

In this case any ambiguity would come from the internal reference, except that or establishes a clear comparison between the phrases with more justice and deserve it less. This comparison suggests that André tolerated a death sentence he did not deserve with the integrity of a gentleman. The larger context of Hamilton's work, the monument erected to André in Tappan, New York, and the analysis of American Sympathy, all confirm this interpretation of Hamilton's sentiment.

  1. If I were paraphrasing with more justice in this context, I would likely use with more integrity:

1.1 The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles:

  1. With the coordinating conjunction or, the predicate deserve it is coordinated with the predicate suffer death making death the antecedent of it. The construction also coordinates the adverb less with the adverbial prepositional phrase with more justice for the logical comparison.



Encyclopedia Britanica



Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less.

I don't think that Hamilton intended any ambiguity here, but I think I see how the ambiguity might arise for a modern reader.

I believe that the meaning of suffer here is the first sense in the OED, namely:

I. To undergo, endure.

  1. trans. To have (something painful, distressing, or injurious) inflicted or imposed upon one; to submit to with pain, distress, or grief.

a. pain, death, punishment, †judgement; hardship, disaster; grief, †sorrow, care.

To suffer death was a common and very old phrase in legal contexts. Melville riffed on it in a chapter in his novel White-Jacket.

I believe that in the phrase with more justice, the word justice takes sense 1.2 in ODO (no link, sorry, because I apparently am not allowed to link more than twice per post), namely,

The administration of the law or authority in maintaining just behavior or treatment.

I don't think Hamilton intended the phrase suffer death with more justice to be ambiguous, or that it would have occurred to him that it could mean that André suffered "death like a brave man," but I think I see how a modern reader, not familiar with the phrase suffer death, might be confused.

The trouble is that although, grammatically speaking, the verb suffer in Hamilton's sentence is in the active voice, taking death as its object, the meaning of the word suffer is passive. The word passive, in fact, comes from the Latin word for "suffer" (OED). Hamilton wouldn't therefore have imagined that a reader might think that it was André who was displaying "more justice," because in Hamilton's mind, the action in the sentence was being performed not by André but by the authorities who were executing him. It was their action that was being performed with "more justice," that is, with greater adherence to the proper administration of the law.

Although it's plausible grammatically, I don't think it's quite viable to construe the sentence as meaning that André underwent his execution more appropriately, or with more fairness and reasonableness. Under such a construction, André would be showing appropriateness, fairness, or reasonableness toward death, and I'm not sure what it would mean to be fair or reasonable toward death, unless death is being personified, which it doesn't seem to be here.

As for the pronoun it, I think it is ambiguous, grammatically speaking, but doesn't impair Hamilton's meaning. It, as deployed in this sentence, can refer either to death or justice, but in André's case, death was justice; that is, death was the punishment that a due administration of the law demanded in a case of spying. So in Hamilton's mind, there's no possible misunderstanding for the reader to trip over.

  • +1 . I thank you deeply for your answer and welcome to ELU! I'm honoured to have a literary scholar answer my question. Out of curiosity, how did you realise my reference to you work in my question? I also ask this here, if you don't mind. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Mar 11 '15 at 15:57
  • You're welcome! Plain old google, I'm afraid, is the answer to your question. – Caleb Crain Mar 11 '15 at 21:36
  • Thank you again, especially for replying again. If interested, I reposted my question here. I hope to be enlightened from your expertise here in the future. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Mar 12 '15 at 4:31
  • 1
    If André didn't deserve the death sentence, as Hamilton implies, how can he justify using with more justice referring to proper administration of law? Either André's mitigating circumstances stay the death penalty (as many wanted), or he actually deserved the death penalty. Hamilton's thesis: André died a just man trapped in the ignoble schemes of war, while Arnold escaped as a wicked traitor. – Morgan Horse Mar 12 '15 at 19:10

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