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Nathan Hale: He gave 'one life,' but quote?


It is probably fair to say that the fame of the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale rests on a single quote, though it was a beauty, a veritable sound bite for the ages:

"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Hale, whose 250th birthday is being marked this year, is supposed to have uttered those words shortly before he was hanged by the British in 1776 as a spy for the Continental Army.

"Without it, would we even know he existed?" asks Richard E. Mooney, who is writing a new biography of Hale.

It is a big Hale year in Connecticut, where Hale was born, graduated from Yale College and taught school. The patriot's birthday this past week was marked with multiple ceremonies and a day of events at the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry.

The question is, Mooney says, did Hale actually utter that enduring and poignant sentence? A good case can be made that he said something very much to that effect, though not necessarily so pithy.

One newspaper account, from early 1777, quotes Hale, secondhand, as saying that if he had 10,000 lives he would "lay them all down, if called to it, in defense of his injured, bleeding country," Mooney says.

The quote can be traced back to a British officer who told the story to an American officer, who then used the version we know today years later in his memoirs, Mooney says.

James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and another Hale researcher, says of the quote: "We just don't have any reliable contemporary evidence."

What is known is Hale graduated from Yale in 1773 and taught school in East Haddam and New London before accepting a commission as a lieutenant in the Continental Army.

After losing the battle of Long Island, Gen. George Washington asked Hale's commander to find an officer willing to volunteer as a spy and find what the British were up to. Hale, who felt he had not yet made a significant contribution to the cause, volunteered.

He crossed Long Island Sound to Huntington Bay, dressed in civilian clothes. He was captured on Long Island and acknowledged to the British that he was on a secret mission for Washington. He was hanged the next day, at what is today the intersection of Third Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan.

One of the more intriguing additions to the Hale story came only five years ago when the journal manuscript of one Consider Tiffany was given to the Library of Congress, Hutson says.

In the journal, Tiffany gives an account of Hale's capture, relating that Hale was tricked into revealing his spy mission by Robert Rogers, who achieved fame as the leader of Rogers' Rangers during the French and Indian War and who during the Revolution served the British as a recruiting officer.

It seems plausible, Hutson says. Hale was a tall, athletically built young man - only 21 when he died - who would have attracted the notice of a British recruiter as a potential soldier.

Hutson says parts of the story match known facts, but, again, can't be verified.

"This is certainly one of the most interesting new pieces of information. It is one of the more interesting stories that have surfaced," he says.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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