Giants of History: The Courage of Nathan Hale

Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays—second only to Thanksgiving, and probably tied with Christmas. It seems fitting to begin our “Giants of History” series with one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War. I considered exploring Thomas Jefferson—after all, he did pen the Declaration of Independence, the reason for our 4th of July celebration. However, I settled on a lesser-known but equally great-souled patriot from whom we can draw inspiration and encouragement. An elite soldier and spy for George Washington, Nathan Hale’s courage accomplished a far greater mission than the intelligence he gathered behind enemy lines.

Early Life

Originally from Coventry, Connecticut, Nathan Hale was raised in a devout Puritan family where he learned the value of hard work and virtue. Hale attended Yale University, where he excelled in literature and debate, then graduated at the top of his class when he was only 18 years old. He became teacher at the Union Grammar School in New London, Connecticut; and because he believed that women’s higher education was being neglected, he also taught a group of young women from five to seven o’clock every morning before his regular classes.

Hale had been teaching for about a year when the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 and the war began. He immediately signed his name with the local militia, then stood to speak at a town meeting: “Let us march immediately,” he said, “and never lay down our arms until we obtain independence!” It was the first time independence had been spoken of in New London, Connecticut—a town far enough removed from the unrest of Boston that the people still lay in the slumber of colonial submission until Hale’s courageous oratory shook the people awake.

Washington’s Rangers

Hale was elected a First Lieutenant in the Connecticut militia, and by some accounts he saw battle during the siege of Boston. He was commissioned a Captain in Washington’s Continental Army in January of 1776. After the British captured Boston, Washington moved his army to New York, where they were defeated at Brooklyn Heights in August of 1776. The Continental Army was forced into Manhattan, and the British captured most of Long Island.

In August 1776, Washington promoted Lieutenant Thomas Knowlton to lieutenant colonel and ordered him to select an elite force of 130 men and 20 officers to carry out reconnaissance missions. Nathan Hale was under Knowlton’s command. Knowlton’s men provided tactical intelligence and took part in several key battles of the Revolutionary War. Known as Knowlton’s Rangers, they were the first organized American elite force, and were the predecessor to modern Army Rangers and Special Forces.

Becoming a Spy

Washington desperately needed information on British troop movements and fortifications, or New York would be lost. At the time, spying was dishonorable at best—spies were unsavory, untrustworthy characters. Both sides considered them illegal combatants and executed them upon capture. Washington couldn’t trust such an important mission to this sort of character; he needed one of his most trusted, most elite soldiers to do it, but he would not demand such a dangerous, demeaning task of anyone—so he asked for volunteers.

There was no honor in this mission. Yet, understanding its critical importance, the young Captain Hale stepped forward. One of his good friends tried to persuade him to change his mind, pointing out how slim his chances were of survival, and the dishonorable legacy he would leave if he became a spy. Hale was unmoved: he responded that there was no dishonor in such an important mission, and he would proudly carry out his duty to his country.

Into the Lion’s Den

Hale made his way behind enemy lines, and with his Yale diploma in hand, posed as a teacher looking for a job. He mapped out the British troop locations and fortifications and, with the intelligence concealed inside his boot, began to make his way back to Washington. There is some debate about how and where he was captured, but captured he was—Washington never received the maps, and New York was eventually taken by the British.

With the maps found in his boot, there was no denying that Hale had been spying on the British, and he was sentenced to hang publicly. The night before his execution, undoubtedly discouraged and frustrated that he had failed in his mission, he decided on one last thing he could do to help the cause he would die for.

On September 22, 1776, as people gathered to watch the hanging, Hale was given a chance for last words. He gathered what remained of his courage and gave a passionate oration in defense of the American cause of liberty, shouting over British soldiers who heckled and mocked him for dying for what they believed to be a worthless cause.

No official records were kept of Hale’s words, but we know he quoted from Joseph Addison’s Cato, an ideological inspiration to many American patriots. Robert MacKensie, a British officer, mentioned Hale in his diary that 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.” 

One Life to Give

Nathan Hale’s final words have echoed down through history. Various accounts were given—no one seemed to remember exactly what he said—but there is no doubt he said something to the effect of:

“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

All who heard were moved by the courage and conviction of those immortal words. Though he died believing his mission had failed, Nathan Hale did not die in vain. The image of a disgraced traitor being hanged as a spy was transformed into the legacy of an honorable patriot sacrificing his life for a worthy cause. By giving his life with such ardent patriotism, he inspired hope for the American cause. In the end, he accomplished a far greater mission than getting maps to General Washington.

Hale’s courage reminds us that we each have only one life to give, and every day we give it for something. What do we live for? Many great and heroic patriots, from Nathan Hale’s generation to our own, have given their lives so that we might live in freedom—freedom to worship as we choose, freedom to associate with whom we wish, freedom in the marketplace, freedom to chase our dreams and to leave our children with a better world than the one we were born into. It’s time for us to honor their sacrifice by living out the freedom that they were willing to die for.

As you celebrate freedom on this Independence Day, resolve to stop taking freedom for granted and start looking for ways that you can invest your one life in causes greater than yourself. Start living in such a way that, when you reach the end of your life, your only regret is that you had but one life to give.

This post was inspired by Rick Green’s short biography of Nathan Hale, which can be found in the book, Legends of Liberty: Timeless Stories of Courageous Champions

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