Nathan Hale never owned property, never fought in a battle, wrote nothing that lasted, invented nothing of note, did not marry or have children, and he failed as a spy. Nevertheless, Connecticut’s state hero commands my enduring admiration.
Today, a captivating bronze statue of Hale stands on the old campus of Yale University. The artist, Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917) used a handsome young Yale student, born about 135 years after Hale, as his model. He stands defiant and resolved to his fate with his hands and feet bound and his head held high. The statue was given to Yale College by graduates and friends in 1914 and it stands near where Hale (Yale class of 1773) was housed as a student.
One day in the late 1990s, I toured the Yale campus with a student guide who scoffed at Pratt’s statue, dismissing Hale as a “lousy spy.” As a respectable tourist, I wanted to hear Hale regaled as a gallant American hero, like my school teachers did back in the 1960s. Alas, not that day. Not that student. Not that tour. The group shuffled on, but I lingered at the statue to savor the famous last words attributed to Hale engraved at the base. Still captivated, I returned later one cold winter day to sketch this sculpture. Here is the result:
The real Nathan Hale was not made of bronze. He was born in Coventry, Connecticut on June 6, 1755, of strong Puritan stock. As the sixth of ten Hale children who survived, he was raised to fear God and focus in earnest on matters of right and wrong.
In 1769, Nathan and his brother Enoch (ages 14 and 16) entered Yale College, armed with a working knowledge of classical Latin authors like Cicero and Virgil. They had read the Greek New Testament as well as biographies of Cyrus the Great and Philip of Macedon. Both teenagers engaged their studies and “secret prayers” carefully and participated in debates over all the great issues of the day.
According to Elisha Bostwick, a friend, Nathan had blue eyes, flaxen blond hair, dark eyebrows, fair-skin, and his agility was “remarkable.” He excelled as a scholar athlete in wrestling, football (such as it was) and the long jump. Another friend, Eneas Munson, observed: “Why all the girls in New Haven were in love with him.”
Bostwick also described Hale as “pious,” a core component of the American spirit back then. After his death at age 21, countless friends testified to Hale’s earnest faith, gentle dignity and visible integrity. Elizabeth Poole, described her friend as “free from the shadow of guile,” a quality that did not help him later as a spy.
Nathan graduated with honors at 18 and took a position as a schoolmaster in East Haddam, Connecticut, and later in New London. One of Hale’s students, Samuel Green, recalled his teacher as having “fine moral character.” There is no greater compliment for a teacher.
In 1774, Nathan joined a Connecticut militia and later became one of six Hale brothers who served in the Revolutionary War. He rose to the rank of captain and was cited again by Bostwick for visiting sick soldiers and praying with them.
In the fall of 1776, General Washington’s forces were driven out of Long Island and he suspected the British would soon invade Manhattan. He needed a volunteer to infiltrate enemy territory to collect intelligence. Hale stepped up. He was caught out of uniform and with an incriminating map with Latin notes in his shoe. Without a trial, British General Howe ordered Hale to be hung the next morning, September 22, 1776. He was denied his request for a Bible and clergy to be with him but was allowed some last words. He reportedly uttered an epic line from a play titled “Cato” by Joseph Addison that ushered him into the annals of American history:
I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.
A voracious reader, Nathan was inspired by great words. The words above may or may not have been his last. Who knows? What I admire most about Hale is not so much his alleged famous last words, impressive as they are, but what all those friends who knew Nathan thought of him.