On September 22, 1776, during the American Revolution, a former school teacher named Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for being a rebel spy.
According to legend, Hale uttered a stirring, patriotic line before his death:
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
What he actually said is uncertain. But modern historians doubt that it was the famous quotation most of us are familiar with.
Hale was an officer in General George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776.
That September, after the British captured New York City, Washington asked for a volunteer to go behind the British lines to gather intelligence. Hale volunteered.
On September 12, wearing civilian clothes, he took a boat from Stamford, Connecticut to Long Island to carry out his secret mission.
A week later, he was detained and searched by British troops. They discovered he was carrying incriminating papers indicating that he was part of General Washington’s growing ring of spies.
British General William Howe quickly ordered Hale to be executed.
According to the eyewitness account recorded in the diary of British officer Frederick Mackenzie (sometimes spelled Mackensie), Hale did say some brave last words on the day he was hung. But Mackenzie doesn’t mention the classic “I only regret…” quotation. Nor does any other eyewitness account.
Mackenzie’s diary does note:
“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.”
Nearly five years later, on May 17, 1781, the Boston Independent Chronicle ran a story about Hale’s execution. It quoted him as saying:
The History of New England, published in 1799, author Hannah Adams wrote that Hale “lamented that he had but one life to lose for his country.”
“I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”
Adams credited William Hull for her account. He was a former American general who may have been the source for the 1781 story in the Boston Independent Chronicle.
Hull claimed to have heard about Hale’s last words from a British soldier who witnessed the hanging.
In 1848, Hull’s daughter published his memoirs. Apparently, it is that book which first included the line that became famous.
According to Hull’s memoir, shortly before Hale was hung:
“…Few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’”
It’s questionable whether Hale spoke those exact words. But it’s plausible that he said something like them.
Hale was a Yale graduate and a teacher. He was undoubtedly familiar with the play Cato, a tragedy about the Roman leader called “Cato the Younger,” written by the English playwright and poet Joseph Addison.
The play was written in 1712, but it was still highly popular in America in the late 1700s.
In Act IV, scene 4, Cato says:
“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.”
That last sentence, penned by Addison, is now widely believed to be the origin of the legendary patriotic quote (or misquote) later attributed to Nathan Hale.
Whatever Hale actually did say before being hanged, at age 21, he said it on today’s date in 1776.
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