by Becky Akers
His statue guards the CIA’s headquarters, though he would have abhorred the agency’s gross dishonor, lies and skullduggery. He fought to live free of the state, yet public schools named after him propagandize students for big government. Nationalists credit him with the famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” though he never uttered such statist words.
Saturday is Nathan Hale’s 260th birthday. As an officer during the American Revolution, he boasted only a year of martial experience and none whatever in espionage, yet he volunteered to spy on the British Army. Predictably, he failed — but gloriously: Though he was only 21 years old when he hanged, he denounced government’s evil from the gallows.
Historians often dismiss Hale as bumbling and inconsequential, but his contemporaries didn’t. He seems to have been one of those magical people who charm everyone. He was Hollywood handsome, too, judging by acquaintances’ descriptions, as well as a gifted athlete: One friend remembered that he “would put his hand on a fence high as his head, and jump over it…” 1
Born to godly parents, Hale grew up on a farm in Coventry, Connecticut. His prosperous father hired the Rev. Joseph Huntington, whose brother Samuel would one day sign the Declaration of Independence, to teach his sons Greek and Latin.
Hale enrolled at Yale when he was 14; a scholar’s age mattered less than his knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Yale’s curriculum also emphasized the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. In fact, the school’s founders established it when Harvard strayed from orthodox Christianity. Most graduates either filled pulpits or taught school.
As they did, they saturated colonial intellectual and religious life with liberty’s philosophy. Whether quoting the Lord’s admonition against the state in I Samuel or decrying Rome’s corrupt government, American preachers and teachers promulgated freedom.
Two years after Hale graduated, colonial farmers defied the British Empire’s increasing tyranny at Lexington and Concord. Hale soon joined the rebels. But America’s new Continental Army lacked funds and, therefore, rations and wages. Within a few months of enlisting, Lt. Hale had not only dipped into his own pocket when his unpaid troops threatened to desert, he’d also daringly raided a British supply ship, capturing food for the hungry Continentals.
By September 1776, the Patriots’ cause seemed doomed as the rebels tried to defend New York City’s strategic harbor. Geography favored the government with its indomitable navy. Then, too, British redcoats had just trounced the Continentals on Long Island. Though the outnumbered patriots still held Manhattan Island, the enemy would soon leap the narrow water separating the two.
Manhattan boasted about 18 miles of accessible coastline — too many for Gen. George Washington’s 10,000 men to defend. Washington needed a spy who could discover plans for the British beachhead. The mission was horribly dangerous; worse, espionage in the 18th century was as shameful as pedophilia is today. One of Hale’s friends explained why: “…who respects the character of a spy, assuming the garb of friendship but to betray? … let us…not stain our honour by the sacrifice of integrity.”2
No wonder Capt. Hale was the only volunteer when Washington solicited his appalled officers for a spy.
Such commitment amazes: from Hale’s perspective, the government would probably win the war. Not only had redcoats recently pulverized the Continentals in battle, they were now chasing the remnants, much as a regiment of the U.S. Army would mop up the survivors of defiant militia. Why risk your life on a cause so entirely lost?
We know little of Hale’s time behind the redcoats’ lines. No doubt his intellect and charisma helped him discover their every secret. But as he was returning to hand those secrets to the Continental command, someone recognized and betrayed him. Rulers urged, “If you see something, say something” then, too.
Rebels, especially spies, deserved summary execution. British Gen. William Howe duly sentenced Hale to hang the next morning, a Sunday, Sept. 22, 1776 at 11 a.m.
The victim could never have guessed that reports of his heroism would escape the few spectators watching him die. Most were British soldiers, some probably bored, others hostile. No matter. He delivered what one newspaper called a “sensible and spirited speech,”3 urging his audience “to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear,” according to a British lieutenant.4
Then came Hale’s fearless finale.
The version we know originated with Gen. William Hull, one of Hale’s college chums. As an old man, Hull wrote an account of Hale’s execution, based on testimony he heard from an eyewitness, British Capt. John Montresor. Coincidentally, Montresor had visited American lines under a flag of truce soon after the execution on unrelated business; Hull met with him. Montresor “seemed touched by the circumstances”5 of Hale’s death, especially his last words, and related them to Hull. The elderly Hull remembered those words as “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”6
But just five years after Hale hanged, the Boston Chronicle published an unsigned article. Hull seems the likeliest author. Therein he quoted Hale’s conclusion as “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”7
Hull’s later, succinct edit packs more punch, but it also anachronistically changes “cause” to “country.” There was no “country” when Hale died, just some bickering, self-styled “states.” And patriots typically spoke of “the cause” of liberty rather than their “country.”
Hale gave his life for liberty, as dramatically as any fictional hero — which is why I wrote a novel about him! You can read of his inspiring death, his even more inspiring life and the agonizing choice he must make between his sweetheart and his honor in “Halestorm.” Hurry: The Kindle version is now only $1.50 — half off the usual price of $2.99 — for readers of Personal Liberty Digest™!