September 22, 1776: Nathan Hale gives up his one life for his country. Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut on June 6, 1755. At age 13, he and his brother, Enoch, began their educations at Yale College. Both brothers joined Linonia, Yale’s literary fraternity. They were able to debate on a wide range of topics including astronomy, mathematics, literature, and ethics, especially the ethics of slavery. Nathan graduated with first-class honors in 1773 at the age of 18.
Nathan took a job teaching in East Haddam and then moved to New London. When war was declared, the young man left his teaching position to join the Connecticut militia. He was elected first lieutenant. He was not yet fully instated and missed the fighting during the Siege of Boston (April 19 – March 17, 1775) but joined the regular Continental Army’s 7th Connecticut Regimen on July 6, 1775. He served under Colonel Charles Webb.
By March 1776, Nathan was promoted to Captain and was given command of a small unit of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers with the orders to defend New York City. During the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence was issued, New York City was taken over by a flanking maneuver of the British forces. A delegation of Patriots met with the British on September 11, 1776 but peace was averted as the rebellious Americans refused to withdraw the Declaration.
Hale volunteered to go behind enemy lines to secure information regarding enemy strength and movement to bring back to General Washington. Hale was captured and as usual for the era, hanged as a spy and illegal combatant. Hale was marched to his execution site and “comported himself eloquently” but no one wrote down his speech. It was only later and by hearsay evidence that his famous line was recorded. The 21-year-old may have quoted lines from Joseph Addison’s play, Cato, instead. Either way, he is a hero today and the nation is grateful for his courage, valor, and honor. In fact, in 1985, he was officially declared the state hero of Connecticut.
“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country.” – Nathan Hale, attributed
“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.” – Joseph Addison, in Cato
“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.” – Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day
“Hale is in the American pantheon not because of what he did but because of why he did it. Nathan Hale spied on the British because the general’s tent was right next to his schoolhouse. On his way back to the Continental Army, the British broke into his school house and attacked him.” – Richard Helms
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Nathan Hale was considered a hero of his time, but there were no images left for future statue makers to use when erecting memorials to the young man. We do know from some letters left by others that he had blond hair, blue eyes, and was taller than average (at that time). He was thoughtful and intelligent and able to converse on many topics. Two famous statues have been created. One stands in New York City and one is located in front of Connecticut Hall where he lived when he attended Yale. One of his ancestors had been involved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. His nephew, Edward Everett, was the “other” speaker at Gettysburg who was so impressed with Lincoln’s brief speech.
Also on this day: Manassa Mauler v. The Fighting Marine – In 1927, “The Long Count” fight takes place.
Tevye’s Family – In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway.
Movies – In 1910, the Duke of York’s Picture House opened.