The Myth of Nathan Hale
I don't remember a time I didn't know who Nathan Hale was. For the Town of Coventry, Connecticut, Nathan Hale is the rock star; the man who made the town of approximately 13,000 people in the northeastern part of the state that they affectionately call "The Quiet Corner," a historical American landmark. He is part of the DNA in Coventry's rocky soil, and in those of us that tie our own personal family legacies to the town.
My maternal grandfather, Frederick T. Edgerton's ancestors, moved from Massachusetts Bay to Coventry in the 1740s, not long after the town's incorporation in 1712. My mother, Beatrice, and my aunt, Virginia, known to me since childhood as "Auntie," taught my brother and I about Nathan Hale from early childhood. The Nathan Hale Homestead, the place of Hale's birth, was only a mile or so from the Edgerton's "Ye Old Homestead" farm where my aunt and mother grew up, and where the Edgertons lived since the 1850s.
The legend of Hale always loomed large in my mind. The larger than life American hero who was hung as a spy by the British during the American Revolution, and who said the words "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country" stuck in my childhood imagination, sparking my interest in 18th Century American history and culture, and the people and circumstances surrounding the American Revolution.
In researching my first novel in my yet un-named trilogy "The Girl Who Stole the Hutchinson Letters," in which Nathan Hale grows from schoolmaster to rebel to soldier, I grew to know and appreciate him even more.
I learned of the high-spirited, fun and flirtatious young man who was everybody's friend. I discovered his antics at Yale with his brother Enoch and his friend Benjamin Tallmidge, such as how they got so drunk one night they broke windows in a tavern. For their part in this, Nathan and Enoch didn't receive an allowance from their father, the Deacon Richard Hale, for a month, forcing them to borrow money from Ben Tallmidge. I learned about his many romances. I even thought, at one point, he was having a romance with one of my ancestors, but alas, they turned out to be just friends.
NATHAN HALE HOMESTEAD, COVENTRY, CONNECTICUT
BIRTHPLACE OF NATHAN HALE
From biographies and diaries, we know these things about Nathan Hale to be true. But it's the things we think we know about Nathan Hale, the things we take for granted, that turn out to be speculative.
Who turned Nathan Hale in to the British? I was taught that Nathan's Tory cousin, Samuel Hale, turned him in. An article in the Essex Journal in 1776 condemned Samuel, alledging "Having nearly accomplished his designs, who should he run into but his cousin Samuel, who Nathan attempted to shun, but Sam knew him too well, and Nathan soon discovered he was advertised, and so particularly described, that he could not get through Long Island."
This, as one could image, tore at the Hale family. Deacon Hale didn't know what to believe. He said he thought his nephew Samuel did betray his cousin, but in his grief said "What did it matter? A child is gone."
But a new and more plausible theory came to light in 2000, when G. Bradford Tiffany, ancestor of Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, donated a manuscript to the Library of Congress written in Consider's hand. In that manuscript is a description of how fallen Seven Year's War veteran Major Robert Rogers recognized Hale in a tavern, and under the guise of camaraderie, tricked him into giving his identity away, and to admitting he was on a spy mission for Washington.
This is the most definitive theory of how Nathan Hale was captured, since much of Tiffany's story was later verified by scholars, although many say it is also feasible that Samuel Hale was lurking around the tavern where he was discovered by Rogers. Did Sam Hale tip Rogers off? It is lost to the ages.
Then there is the matter of what Nathan Hale said when he was about to be executed. Everybody knows the saying "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country," which has been a mantra for American patriots since it was spoken 240 years ago.
But was that what he really said??
Some say no. From Wikipedia, here is some of the history of those words, and other ideas about what was said:
The story of Hale's quote began with John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the hanging. Soon after the execution, Montresor spoke with the American officer William Hull about Hale's death. Hull later publicized Hale's use of the declaration. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale's speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of the account.
If Hale did not originate the statement, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison's play Cato, an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
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.
No official records were kept of Hale's speech. However, Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day:
"He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the
spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear."
It is almost certain that Nathan Hale's last speech contained more than one sentence. Several early accounts mention different things he said. These are not necessarily contradictory, but rather, together they give an idea of what the speech must have been like.
(The following quotes are all taken from George Dudley Seymour's book, Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, published in 1941 by the author.)
From the diary of Enoch Hale, Nathan's brother, after he went to question people who had been present, October 26, 1776: "When at the Gallows he spoke & told them that he was a Capt in the Cont Army by name Nathan Hale."
From the Essex Journal, February 13, 1777: "However, at the gallows, he made a sensible and spirited speech; among other things, told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country."
From the Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, May 17, 1781: "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."
From the memoirs of Captain William Hull, quoting British Captain John Montresor, who was present and who spoke to Hull under a flag of truce the next day:
"On the morning of his execution," continued the officer, "my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal [William Cunningham] to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, 'I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.'"
So what is the truth? We will never know. What is known is that those words, and Nathan Hale, made an impression on generations of Americans who remember his iconic legacy as a statement of American patriotism.
And he made an impression on me, and it will last my lifetime.