One Life for Liberty
Nathan Hale Gave His Life for the Cause
AUGUST 01, 1997 by BECKY AKERS
Becky Akers has written a novel on Nathan Hale for which she is seeking publication.
A British artillery park, Sunday, September 22, 1776. It wants an hour to noon, but the sun glares mercilessly on the cannon, and the Redcoats milling about mop their brows. There’s not much breeze, but what there is stinks of smoke: It blows from the south, where New York City lies smoldering after yesterday’s fire.
In front of the park is a tree. A cart and horse wait under it. A noose dangles overhead.
In the cart stands a young and outrageously handsome man. He’s serene, confident, almost cheerful. His hands are bound behind him. Otherwise, no one would guess he’s about to die, like a murderer, like a thief.
The hangman scrambles into the cart beside him, tugs the noose tight around his neck, tells him if he’s got anything to say, he better say it now.
He sweeps the British with eyes as blue as the East River behind them.
I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.
With those words, Captain Nathan Hale of the 19th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army is hanged for espionage. He is 21 years old.
Old enough to have starved and marched for a year in Washington’s army. Too young to have left anything but mundane letters and a matter-of-fact journal of his months as a Continental officer.
Captain Hale wrote no inspired treatises on liberty, no books extolling freedom. He worked on a different, larger manuscript, that of the American Revolution.
Historians often distort the Revolution into a class war of merchants against farmers, with independence from England the Patriots’ only aim. But contemporaries knew exactly what the Revolution was about. Its commander-in-chief was famous for calling George III a tyrant, his government a diabolical ministry, for exhorting his troops to show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth. The Congress running it was comprised of members like the Adamses, who lived, breathed, and dreamed liberty. (But while I do live, John Adams said during debate on the Declaration of Independence, let me have a country, and that a free country. Cousin Sam had written in 1772, The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.) Then there was the English convert cheering it on with such sentiments as Government, even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one. A man showed how much he valued freedom, how he wanted to live free of excises and restrictions on travel and regulations about how and where he conducted business, just by joining up.
Who Was Nathan Hale?
As the Revolution has been twisted, so have Nathan Hale and his last words. Today he is largely forgotten or dismissed as a bumbling farmboy who let his enthusiasm carry him away. But again, his contemporaries understood what motivated him. They even engraved it on his memorial tablet: Resign’d his life a sacrifice to his country’s liberty.
Nathan Hale was as extraordinary in life as he was in death. Colonel Samuel Green recalled that he was peculiarly engaging in his manners—. . . old & young exceedingly attached to him—respected highly by all his acquaintance—fine moral character. Everybody that knew Hale was attached to him—‘that’s the fact.’ Mrs. Elizabeth Adams Poole, whose family boarded Hale while he taught school in New London, Connecticut, remembered that his appearance, manners, & temper secured the purest affection of those to whom he was known. . . . On the whole I then thought him (& his tremendous—i.e., shameful: spies were then considered the worst of criminals—fate has not weakened the impression) one of the most perfect human characters recorded in history or exemplified in any age or nation. Mrs. Poole wrote this in 1837, when people liked their heroes unblemished. Still, it is hard to fault Nathan Hale. Everyone spoke of him with overwhelming affection, and unlike some champions of liberty, he never violated the ideals of freedom.
Born June 6, 1755, in Coventry, Connecticut, he was one of ten children (two more died as infants) raised by Richard Deacon Hale and his wife Elizabeth Strong. The family was already distinguished. Nathan’s great-grandparents, John and Sarah Hale, helped end the Salem witch trials, and both the Hale and Strong families were spangled with ministers, the celebrities of Puritan New England.
Deacon Hale prospered enough on his farm to educate several of his eight sons. Nathan and his brother Enoch were tutored by Coventry’s minister, the Reverend Joseph Huntington, whose brother Samuel would later sign the Declaration of Independence.
Nathan enrolled at Yale College when he was 14. Admission required fluency in Latin and Greek, so Nathan had already read—and for the next four years would continue to read—such authors as Cicero and Aristotle. He also showed an athleticism that awed his friends: I have seen him, Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick reported, follow a football & kick it over the tops of the trees . . . (an exercise he was fond of). Colonel Green recalled that he [w]as exceedingly active—would jump from the bottom of one hogshead up and down into a second and from the second up and down into a third like a cat—used to perform this feat often—would put his hand on a fence high as his head, and jump over it. Legend says he made such a prodigious broad jump on New Haven’s green that the marks were preserved for years.
At commencement, Nathan and three classmates debated, “Whether the Education of Daughters be not without any just reason more neglected than that of Sons?” There is no record of which side each graduate argued. But it is likely that Nathan spoke against restricting school to boys as he was teaching a class of girls less than a year later.
Schoolmaster . . .
Schoolteaching demanded a strong arm, for whippings were as much a part of the curriculum as reading and writing. But according to Colonel Green, Master Hale broke with that tradition: Children all loved him for his tact and amiability . . . wonderful control over boys—without severity . . . Mrs. Poole agreed: . . . the mildness of his mode of instruction, was highly appreciated by Parents & Pupils. And there was his class for girls, which met from 5:00-7:00 every morning, before the start of the regular school day. Educating females was a liberal notion in 1774, but Master Hale mentions it nonchalantly in a letter to his uncle: 20 young ladies attended his class, for which I have received 6s [shillings] a scholar, by the quarter.
He was teaching in New London, Connecticut, in April 1775 when couriers from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety spread the news of Lexington and Concord. Not only had mere farmers confronted British Regulars intent on raiding a colonial arsenal, but those farmers and hundreds of their neighbors then sent the Regulars skedaddling back to Boston under withering fire. Town meetings were called all over New England to discuss this disarming of free men. Years later, Leverett Saltonstall wrote about the gathering in New London, related to me by my aged friend, Capt. Richard Law, who at that time was [Nathan Hale's] pupil . . . Mr. Hale [said] ‘let us march immediately and never lay down our arms untill we obtain our Independence.’ . . . Capt. Law states that he was very young at that time . . . [but he was] struck by the noble demeanour of Hale, and the emphasis with which he addressed the assembly, [and] he enquired of his Father, what it meant. As well he might. Few were advocating independence from England at that time. Even George Washington and John Adams hoped for reconciliation. It was not until Common Sense burst on the Colonies eight months later that independence from England was accepted as the best way to safeguard liberty.
Soldier . . .
Nathan Hale enlisted as a lieutenant with the Connecticut militia that July and, a few months later, was commissioned a captain in the Continental Army.
Meanwhile, the Rebellion proceeded gloriously. Patriots had not only chased the Redcoats back to Boston, they kept them besieged there for the next eight weeks. When the British tried to break out at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Americans ceded the hill but wounded or killed half the Redcoats. Better yet, the siege resumed apace.
There were problems, to be sure. One was the disorganization of the Continental Army, especially the quartermaster’s department. Food, pay, even ammunition and weapons were in short supply. The recruiting office was almost as bad. Men had enlisted through the end of the year, and as December 1775 approached, the hungry, unpaid, musketless Patriots gathered around Boston would go home—en masse. The British would sit unopposed in Boston, free to invade the countryside. Some officers, such as General Charles Lee, berated and threatened their men, trying to force them to stay. But Captain Hale used a free-market approach. He paid his company out of his own pocket to remain until new recruits arrived.
Finally, in March of 1776, General Sir William Howe, Commander of His Majesty’s Land Forces in North America, admitted defeat. Farmers watched in jubilant disbelief as the world’s best army boarded transports and abandoned Boston.
Patriot morale soared at the British departure (though everyone knew Howe and his Redcoats would return, probably to New York City, so Washington hurried his troops there). It rose even higher in July, when Congress published the Declaration of Independence. Here was lyrical, logical justification for rebellion: when any form of government becomes destructive of liberty, it is [the people's] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government. With such encouragement, men continued to enlist, more than could be outfitted and fed. Their spirit was hardly dampened when Howe’s fleet, augmented by fresh troops from England and German mercenaries, was sighted south of New York. Even an epidemic of typhus fever did not quell their enthusiasm.
But the problems with payroll and supply that had plagued the army at Boston followed them to New York. So Captain Hale led a detachment to capture a British supply sloop from under the 64 guns of a man-of-war, thus arming and feeding the Continentals after months of scanty provisions.
In August 1776, after the successes of Lexington and Concord, the battle at Bunker Hill, and the evacuation of Boston, Americans suffered their first defeat when Howe’s army squared off against them in the Battle of Brooklyn. The British found an undefended pass on the Americans’ left and swept in behind them. At day’s end, the Continentals—or what was left of them: 2,000 out of 19,000 were casualties—huddled in their fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, trapped. The East River lay behind them, and Redcoats were building siege tunnels a few hundred yards in front. A siege was the classic way to end a battle—and, in this case, the war. Barring a miracle, the besieged could look forward to thorough defeat.
But Washington and a kind Providence worked that miracle. Rain fell the next three days, wetting gunpowder and preventing further fighting. The storm also kept the British Navy from sailing up the East River to bombard the Americans’ rear. Washington thus had time to orchestrate a daring retreat. Under cover of darkness, he ferried his army across the East River, back to Manhattan, right under British noses.
Still, defeat loomed. Sooner or later the British Army would follow them across the river, the British Navy would surround Manhattan Island. Washington’s force of 30,000 began deserting until only 10,000 terrified farmers and shopkeepers remained. With this number, the General had to defend Manhattan’s 18 miles of accessible coastline from Howe’s 35,000 professionals. Obviously, if Washington knew the time and place of the British beachhead, he could mass his troops, maybe even hold New York.
He needed a spy.
Espionage in those days before James Bond was considered neither sexy nor glamorous. One Continental officer called it moral degradation and added, Who respects the character of a spy, assuming the garb of friendship but to betray? . . . Let us . . . not stain our honor by the sacrifice of integrity. So heinous was it that years later, when President Washington wanted to honor some of the Revolution’s surviving agents with a dinner party, they declined rather than admit their involvement to family and friends.
In early September 1776, then, with the British preparing to cross the East River and finish the war, Washington turned to Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut for help. After the debacle in Brooklyn, Knowlton had formed about 100 men, the creme de la creme of the army, into a corps of Rangers. He recruited four captains, one of whom was Nathan Hale. Their main duty was reconnaissance, to make sure the British never again surprised the troops as they had in Brooklyn.
Washington may have talked to the Rangers himself, or he may have asked Knowlton to handle it. Either way, finding a spy would be difficult. Few men would volunteer for such ignominy.
But Captain Hale did.
His friends tried to dissuade him. I [told him], wrote Captain William Hull, who had known Nathan at Yale, that it was an action . . . [whose] propriety . . . was doubtful . . . the employment was not in keeping with his character. His nature was too frank and open for deceit and disguise.
After the retreat of our army from Long Island, Sergeant Stephen Hempstead recalled, [Captain Hale] informed me, he was sent for to Head Quarters, and was solicited to go over to Long Island to discover the disposition of the enemy’s camps, &c., expecting them to attack New York, but that he was too unwell to go, not having recovered from a recent illness; that upon a second application, he had consented to go. Asher Wright, a boyhood friend who had followed Hale to war as his attendant, thought it folly: He was too good-looking to go so. He could not deceive. Some scrubby fellows ought to have gone. He had marks on his forehead so that anybody would know him who had ever seen him—having had powder flashed in his face.
Neither illness nor his friends’ disapproval kept the Captain from his mission. Sergeant Hempstead accompanied him as he . . . left our Camp on Harlem Heights . . . Capt Hale had changed his uniform for a plain suit of citizens brown clothes . . . [afterwards] we parted for the last time in life. This is our final glimpse of Hale until British logs note his arrest.
We know nothing of his activities behind the lines. Likewise, there are no eyewitness accounts of his capture. Many suspected false play: . . . betra’d he doutless wass by somebody, his father wrote. [H]e was executed about the 22nd of Sepetember Last by the Aconts we have had. A Child I sot much by but he is gone. . . . Some thought that Nathan’s cousin Samuel, a Tory from New Hampshire who was serving as Howe’s Deputy Commissary of Prisoners, had recognized and betrayed him. According to other stories, he gave himself away. His brother Enoch’s journal says, . . . Being suspected by his movement [that] he wanted to get out of N York [he] was taken up & examined by the Genl [Howe] & some minutes being found with him orders were immediately given that he should be hanged.
British Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie corroborates the interrogation by General Howe: A person named Nathaniel Hales [sic] . . . this day made a full and free confession to the Commander in Chief of his being employed by Mr. Washington. . . . Howe probably offered the prisoner his life to turn his coat. Although we would not condemn a man’s efforts to save his neck by switching sides and then deserting, an eighteenth-century gentleman would never stoop to that. Such a choice for Nathan Hale was no choice at all.
Still, it is remarkable that he refused. From his vantage, the Revolution was finished. Howe had devastated the Continentals at the Battle of Brooklyn one month ago; during the week or ten days that Captain Hale was behind their lines, British forces had invaded New York City with only token resistance from the shattered Patriots; Howe’s well-fed, professional army outnumbered Washington’s rabble three to one, besides the British navy cruising New York’s bay, ready to shell Continental fortifications. It was only a matter of time until the Redcoats marched north from the city (then occupying the southern tip of Manhattan Island) to Harlem Heights, mopping up the Continentals as they went.
Yet Captain Hale stayed true to his cause.
On the gallows, Mackenzie reported, he behaved with great composure and resolution. William Hull recalled that . . . [British Captain John Montresor] came to our camp, under a flag of truce and informed [us] . . . that Captain Hale had been . . . executed that morning . . . [Montresor] was present . . . and seemed touched by the circumstances . . . [Captain Hale] was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. . . . He said, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’
This extract, from Hull’s memoirs, was written decades after the Revolution. By then, a country and government that were already abusing the people’s hard-won liberties had been established. But in 1782, just six years after Nathan Hale’s death, an article appeared anonymously in the Boston Chronicle. Evidence suggests that Hull was its author. Here he quotes Captain Hale’s last words 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.’
Obviously, the shorter version packs a greater punch, but it also changes cause to country. Nathan Hale was no nationalist. He gave his life for the cause of liberty, not for a collection of state governments that hardly existed and was not venerated once it did.
In one of the Revolution’s darkest hours, Nathan Hale stood firm for liberty. He refused to renounce its ideals though it cost him his life and though the Continental Army faced annihilation. His courage in the face of such hopelessness inspired that army during the fall and winter of 1776, as they lost battle after battle but continued to regroup and fight. It inspires to this day. So why is it, Sergeant Hempstead marveled, that the delicious Capt Hale should be . . . forgotten?
- George Washington, General Orders, Headquarters, New York, July 2, 1776.
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.
- Quoted in The Documentary Life of Nathan Hale by George Dudley Seymour, 1941, p. 158. Seymour’s biography was privately printed and so is extremely hard to find. It consists of original sources as well as secondary articles on Captain Hale. In the nineteenth century, Nathan Hale and the other heroes of the Revolution were romanticized, and biographies that were really hagiographies appeared. Seymour was the first serious biographer of Hale. Although he admired Hale intensely, he never accepted legend as fact but carefully researched and verified all original accounts before including them in his Documentary Life. Subsequent quotations in this article are from Seymour’s book.