Nathan Hale : biography
Nathan Hale as depicted in bronze (1890) by [[Frederick William MacMonnies at the Brooklyn Museum]]
Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 – September 22, 1776) was a soldier for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City but was captured by the British and hanged. He is probably best remembered for his purported last words before being hanged: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Hale has long been considered an American hero and, in 1985, he was officially designated the state hero of Connecticut.
By all accounts, Hale comported himself eloquently before the hanging. Over the years, there has been some speculation as to whether he specifically uttered the famous line:
But may be a revision of:
The story of Hale's famous 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. Later, it was Hull who widely publicized Hale's use of the phrase. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale's speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of the account.
If Hale did not give the famous quote, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison's play, Cato, an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
No official records were kept of Hale's speech. However, Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day:
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 us 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 [the infamous 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.'"
Two early ballads also attempt to recreate Hale's last speech. They are probably more imaginative than accurate, but are included here for completeness:
From Songs and Ballads of the Revolution, collected by F. Moore (1855), "Ballad of Nathan Hale" (anonymous), dated 1776: "'Thou pale king of terrors, thou life's gloomy foe, Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave; Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe. No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave.'"
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