Nathan Hale has long been enshrined as a patriotic American icon for his last words before his hanging by the British, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” M. William Phelps, who is the author of the new book The Life and Death of America’s First Spy: Nathan Hale, believes Hale never uttered those exact words. But in Phelps’s view, that wouldn’t in any way take away from the significance and importance of Hale’s legacy. One of the defining projects of any Hale biographer would be to make an attempt at separating the folk-lore from reality, and Phelps does a fine job in this account.
Phelps also focuses on how defining Hale’s Christian faith was in his brief life asserting “even at a young age, he put Christian values before all else.” Phelps describes Hale as a man who enjoyed his scholarly pursuits and friendships at Yale. The picture that is drawn of Hale is a young man who is committed to his faith, to his family, and serving others. In fact, after his graduation from Yale he went on to serve as a teacher in order to better prepare young minds for the world. One of the many moving accounts of Phelps’s book is the wonderful things people say about Hale as a teacher, as a Christian, and as a man of character. An acquaintance noted, “His capacity as a teacher, and the mildness of his mode of instruction, was highly appreciated by Parents & Pupils; his appearance, manners, & temper secured the purest affections of those to whom he was known.” Phelps also makes note of how he impressed people with his ability to express and explain the importance of liberty, and the oppression of the English Crown. His words were magnified even more because he chose them carefully and spoke from the heart.
Hale decided to take a leave of absence from teaching to join Washington’s Army. He was commissioned a lieutenant, and he wrote to his father to say, “A sense of duty urged me to sacrifice everything for my country.” Hale’s father already had five of his eight sons taking up arms against the British. Hale distinguished himself on the battlefield just as he did as a teacher by being focused on sacrifice, service, and his commitment to being a professional officer.
With Washington’s Army in New York, more information was needed about the British troops in the area. Hale enthusiastically volunteered to go undercover to obtain the necessary information. Fellow officers tried to talk him out of it declaring the mission a “death sentence,” and declared that spying was unbecoming of the character of an army officer. Phelps notes:
I.W. Stuart described a spy as a ‘companion of darkness.’ There was no way of dressing the job up to appear less dishonest than it was. ‘If he moved in the light,’ Stuart wrote, ‘it is behind walls, in the shadow of trees, in the loneliness of clefts, under the cover of hills . . . skulking with the owl, the mole, or the Indian.’ One of the problems Nathan faced as a spy was that, on his best day, Nathan Hale was none of those. He embodied the spirit of that compassionate man Asher Wright described: the one who knelt by the bedside of a fellow, a devoted Christian who prayed for a soldier dying next to him in the marsh. He was not an impostor, an actor. However, Nathan’s commitment to the cause overrode any of the hazards. He had made a decision and saw it as his duty as an American soldier to follow through with it.
Phelps in his account also reinforces the fact that a well educated man was needed for the mission in order to procure the proper sketches and notes for General Washington. Hale went behind enemy lines disguised as a Dutch school teacher in farm clothes.
Phelps tries to put to rest the often cited account that Hale was spotted and turned in by a loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale, arguing instead new evidence favors that he was tricked into admitting his spying by a ruthless and savvier British Colonel, named Robert Rogers. In any event, on his way back to the American line, Hale was caught and disclosed the details of his mission and was sentenced to death by hanging the next morning for espionage. Hale was refused the presence of a chaplain and a bible before execution, which he had asked to be granted to him. Several British accounts testify to the immense courage Hale displayed and faced even with the certainty of his earthly demise. He warned the onlookers “to be prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.” A captain in the Continental Army, Hale was only twenty-one when he was executed. Phelps declared of Hale:
Nathan accepted his sentence. He stood proudly, head tilted skyward, posture firm, hands tied behind his back. Then, in a phrase that has been misquoted throughout the centuries and turned into a slogan for patriotism, he said, ‘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.’ This is perhaps the most often misremembered moment in the Nathan Hale story: What did he say moments before he was executed? The line attributed to him – ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country’ – is only a paraphrase of what Nathan actually said, which was reported in the Independent Chronicle on May 17, 1781, as part of an article many believed William Hull narrated to the reporter. But contemporary scholars and historians have said the apocryphal quote was derived from the popular Revolutionary War play Cato. This poetic line fit with the heroism being created around Nathan’s legacy at the time it became popular decades after his death. His peers wanted him to be remembered not as a failed spy, but as a hero who spoke with patriotic self-worth at the moment of his death. In contrast, the Essex Journal, on February 2, 1777, reported Nathan’s final words as ‘You are shedding the blood of the innocent. If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to do it, in defence of my injured, bleeding country.’
Hale was left to hang for three days, then cut down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave somewhere “near present-day Third Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Sixty-sixth streets,” according to Phelps. His body was never recovered.
Phelps has crafted a story that helps to make Hale’s life remarkable outside of what he is most assuredly known for, his heroic death. His life confidently testifies to devotion to his Savior first, his country, and liberty. Phelps movingly concludes his biography by asserting:
When the British strung Nathan Hale up and hanged him, they did so to end his influence on the American effort. And yet, at the moment Nathan died on the end of that rope, the British gave birth to a national icon of liberty and patriotism. Nathan was, during his life, a captain in the American Continental Army who was willing to risk everything for the greater good of his country, a solider who was certainly, ill-prepared as a spy, but had a heart that led him to fulfill his duty. Sadly, death made him a martyr, a hero, an American solider to – rightly so – celebrate and honor. Yet he was – and could have been – all those things in life, too.