Nathan Hale - the Inside Story of an American Revolutionary

Updated: Oct 4

Two hundred forty-five years ago today, Nathan Hale was killed by hanging in New York by British troops under the command of General William Howe. Five days earlier -- on September 17, 1776 -- Hale had entered the occupied city as a spy, having responded to an appeal by General George Washington for volunteers. Little can be known for certain about Hale's final days, except that he comported himself in ways that impressed both General Howe and at least two other British soldiers who witnessed his execution. He was 21 years old.

THE LEGEND OF NATHAN HALE -- including the attribution to him of the words, "I regret that I have but one life to lose [or "one life to give"] for my country -- was not firmly established until almost fifty years later, when Jedidiah Morse included him in his popular 1824 Annals of the American Revolution. For this reason, modern historians have paid little attention to Hale, considering him, if at all, in the context of the Revolution's myth-making aftermath, rather than as an important part of the Revolution itself.

I JUST KNEW THERE WAS MORE TO NATHAN HALE THAN MET THE EYE. I had visited the two schoolhouses in East Haddam and New London, where he had taught as a schoolteacher for 18 months before volunteering for the Connecticut Militia, both of which have been turned into museums. I had browsed the collections of the Linonian Society, the literary club to which both Nathan and his older brother Enoch Hale had belonged as students at Yale College. I had read the papers of Samuel Huntington, the Hale brothers' hometown pastor and a central figure in both their lives. Most importantly, I had spent hours with the papers of Enoch Hale, who went on to a 50-year career of preaching as a Congregationalist pastor, after his brother was martyred for the cause of the American Revolution. I'll share more about Enoch Hale in a forthcoming post.

MOST HISTORIES OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION focus on big picture ideas like those articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and BIG NAMES like those we now know as the "Founding Fathers." But what was going on inside the hearts and minds of ordinary young men -- young men like Nathan Hale -- when they determined to risk their lives for the cause of the American Revolution?

THAT IS THE QUESTION I SET OUT TO ANSWER IN MY NEW BOOK. ONE LIFE TO GIVE: Martyrdom and the Making of the American Revolution offers an "inside look" at the upbringing and spiritual formation of the young men who composed America's revolutionary generation. The book opens and closes with a profile of Nathan Hale as an exemplary representative of a tradition that is rightly understood as "American martyrdom."

WHAT IS THIS TRADITION, the tradition in which young men like Nathan Hale were raised? Here are a few nutshells, drawn from the conclusion to ONE LIFE TO GIVE:

  • "To oppose a perceived tyrant on the grounds of principle, to conceive of this opposition as a matter of principle, and to conclude that virtue required making this opposition a fight to the death - these ideals had been passed down through generations of English Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic."

  • "The War of Independence represented a perfect opportunity for a new generation of young men to demonstrate their masculine determination and devotion as martyrs to the patriot cause."

  • "The life and death of Nathan Hale were fruit of this ancient tradition, the tradition of English Protestant martyrdom appropriated to the context of colonial America and adapted to the cause of the American Revolution."

IN CASE YOU FIND YOURSELF WONDERING, you are right to suspect that this spirit still courses through the veins of the American body politic. Because we have lost track of this ancient history, we are largely unaware of its still-powerful influence. In a future post, I'll explain why I consider this spiritual inheritance a "double-edged sword." For now, let me leave you with these two images from the almanac that Nathan Hale almost certainly carried in his pocket through the first months of the year 1776, as he prepared himself to die for the American cause.

IN THIS FIRST IMAGE, one of the final pages of Ebenezer Watson's Connecticut Almanack for the year 1776, the only almanac printed in Connecticut that year, Hale is listed as a Captain in the nineteenth regiment of George Washington's Continental Army.

IN THIS SECOND IMAGE, atop the almanac's calendar for the month of April, is a poem encouraging "patriot Heroes" to "play the man." The phrase, "to play the man," would have sounded to young men like Nathan Hale similar to what young men today might hear by calls to "man up" or "take it like a man." As I show in my book, this phrasing was pervasive in popular print materials that circulated widely in the colonies for generations leading up to the American Revolution. Nathan Hale would have been bathed in encouragement like this from the time he took his first steps and from the time he learned his A-B-Cs ... and right up until the day he responded to George Washington's appeal for a volunteer to enter occupied New York as a spy.

Pages from Ebenezer Watson, Watson's Register, and Connecticut Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord, 1776 (Hartford, CT: Ebenezer Watson, 1775), 8, 24. Reprinted with the permission of the American Antiquarian Society.

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