1776: Nathan Hale, with regrets

On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques in New York contend to mark the execution spot.

Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.

When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.

As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.

The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “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.” Gah.

If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:*

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.

* The play was all the rage among patriots; Patrick Henry might have plucked his immortal “give me liberty or give me death” line from it, too. (“It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”)

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.