By Samantha Wilcoxson for HistoricalNovelsRUs
When you hear the name Nathan Hale, you may recall words something like, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.’ Perhaps you remember that Hale was relatively young, and a poor spy. However, most Americans think of little else besides a vague sense of patriotism when thinking of Nathan Hale.
Nathan was born on 6 June 1755, on a farm in Coventry, Connecticut, approximately in the middle of a brood of a dozen children born to Elizabeth (Strong) and Richard Hale. His closest sibling was his brother, Enoch, who was nineteen months older. These two brothers were tutored by Reverend Joseph Huntington, though not all the Hale children shared their intellectual pursuits.
When it came time to attend Yale College in 1769, Nathan and Enoch went together, sharing a dorm room as they had shared a bedroom at home. The boys’ mother, Elizabeth, had died two years earlier, soon followed by their youngest sister, Susannah. Their father, Richard, remarried Abigail Adams (not THAT one) months before Nathan and Enoch set out for their university education.
At ages fourteen and fifteen, Nathan and Enoch would already have learned their Virgil and Cicero from Reverend Huntington and would have read their New Testament in Greek. While this might have been impressive to their Coventry neighbors, it was the norm for erudite young men entering Yale. One who became a best friend of Nathan’s was Benjamin Tallmadge, who was so well prepared by his minister father that he sometimes found himself bored enough to get into trouble.
Alongside Tallmadge, the Hale brothers broke windows on campus one evening, incurring an extra billing that had to be explained to their fathers. However, most of the time the boys were well behaved and hard working. They were members of the Linonian Society, a club for debate, rhetoric, and civil discourse. One can imagine their conversations as the current events of the day were leading down a path to war. Perhaps they discussed the Boston Massacre when it occurred and tried to discern whether it had been a riot or a firing line as they compared varied reports.
They graduated in 1773 shortly before the arrival of news of the Tea Act having been passed by parliament. Enoch continued his studies to become a minister, while Nathan took a teaching position. At commencement, Nathan had participated in a debate regarding the education of women. Once he was established at a Latin school in New London, he did more than speak in favor of increased opportunities for females. He offered classes for girls from 5-7 am before the boys arrived for the day.
Nathan’s time as a schoolmaster did not last long. When shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, he left his position to become an officer in the New London artillery company. The summer of 1775 was spent drilling and recruiting before marching to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in September. Hale’s surviving army diary and letters reveal his disillusionment with army life and desire to do something that would make a real impact. The soldiers spent most of the winter of 1775-6 battling smallpox, hunger, and cold rather than the British.
During his time in the Continental Army, Nathan participated in a raid that successfully stole a British supply sloop and an attempt to set fire to another. However, most of his time was spent drilling and foraging for food. It was not the glorious experience he had been hoping for, so when the opportunity came to be of notable service, he grasped at it.
His friends and fellow officers did not believe that Nathan was well-suited to espionage. He was friendly, good-looking, and naturally trusting. He was intelligent but not cunning. Nothing they could say could change his mind. Nathan was determined to serve his country by sneaking onto Long Island and discovering the enemy’s next move.
It took only a few days for Nathan to be captured by Major Robert Rogers. He carried incriminating notes taken in Latin and confessed his mission. With little hope of mercy or a prisoner exchange, Nathan spent the night of 21 September 1776 in Beekman’s greenhouse in New York City. The next morning, he was hanged, a trial being deemed unnecessary given the evidence against him.
The last words often attributed to Nathan Hale, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country,’ are paraphrased from Cato by Joseph Addison, a play that he likely read and discussed during his time at Yale. The Essex Journal ascribed another Cato paraphrase to Hale, reporting that he said, ‘If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down.’ Whether Nathan said both or neither of these lines, British Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, who witnessed Hale’s execution, recorded that 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.
Revolution. Friendship. Sacrifice.
But One Life: The Story of Nathan Hale is an intimate retelling of the life of a great American patriot. As a young man, he debated philosophy at Yale and developed his personal politics of the revolution. Shortly after graduation, he joined the Continental Army and volunteered as a spy in 1776. How did Nathan become a man willing to sacrifice himself with just one regret – that he had but one life to give for his country?
Experience the American Revolution alongside Nathan, his brother, Enoch, and good friends like Benjamin Tallmadge. They dream of liberty and independence. But at what cost?
Friendship, faith, love, and loyalty motivate young Nathan to become a name recognized throughout America as the quintessential patriot.
If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down.
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Samantha is a writer of historical fiction and sufferer of wanderlust. She enjoys exploring the past and strives to reveal the deep emotions and motivations of historical figures, enabling readers to connect with them in a unique way. Samantha is an American writer with British roots and a proud mother of three amazing young adults. She can frequently be found lakeside with a book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.