Nathan Hale

From Academic Kids

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Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755September 22, 1776) was an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Hale was most famous for his service as a spy; he volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission and was caught and executed. Hale today is considered an American hero, and a large statue of him is outside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC.

Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut, and attended Yale College, graduating in 1773. He taught school thereafter until the war began. In July 1775 he was given a lieutenant's commission in the Connecticut militia, but soon afterward joined the regular Continental Army.

After having participated in the Siege of Boston, Hale was promoted to captain and in March 1776 commanded a small unit of Knowlton's Rangers in the defense of New York City, which rescued a ship full of provisions from the guard of a British man-of-war.

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Nathan Hale at the gallows.

In September of that year, Hale volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in Long Island, which was at that time behind enemy lines. He disguised himself as a Dutch schoolteacher, and after having successfully gathered the information required by the mission, he was apprehended while returning to his regiment on Manhattan Island on September 21.

British Gen. Sir William Howe ordered that he be hanged for espionage the following day. He was allowed to give a speech from the gallows, part of which, according to tradition, included the words "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

In all likelihood, Hale was actually repeating a passage from James Addison's play, Cato, which was an ideological inspiration to many Whigs;

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

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Nathan Hale statue outside the Tribune Tower in Chicago

No official records of any sort having been kept of Hale's speech, it is impossible to verify that he actually delivered this memorable line; however, rumor of it subsequently spread throughout the colonies, making a martyr of Hale and boosting morale for the revolutionaries.

No authentic likeness exists. The square-jawed image of an idealized Nathan Hale has been established by the memorial statue by Frederick William Macmonnies that was erected in 1890 at the site in City Hall Park (Broadway at Murray Street) in New York City upon which Hale was executed (copies exist in several museums). Hale is buried in Coventry, Connecticut.

A statue of Nathan Hale, sculpted around 1898 by Bela Lyon Pratt, was cast in 1912 and stands in front of Connecticut Hall at Hale's alma mater, Yale. Copies of this sculpture stand at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the Nathan Hale Homestead, the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The United States Navy submarine USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623) was named in his honor.

"...but one life to lose..." Nathan Hale's famous quote was a recasting of a famous line from Joseph Addison's noble tragedy on Roman themes, Cato (premiered 1713): "What pity is it That we can die but once to save our country!"

(Act IV, scene 4). Addison's Cato was favorite reading of George Washington. As a schoolteacher, Hale must have heard this speech declaimed on more than one occasion.


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