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'But one life to give': Dramaturgy, patriotism & the last words of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale as he appeared on US postage stamps issued in both 1925 and 1929
Nathan Hale 1925 Issue half-cent stamp

State Hero

Aside from Patrick Henry’s impassioned declaration of ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ to the Virginia Convention in 1775, perhaps no other line from the revolutionary era is as recognizable or capable of stirring patriotic sentiment amongst Americans than the purported dying declaration of Connecticut’s own Nathan Hale. Hanged by the British on September 22, 1776 in New York City after a failed intelligence-gathering mission, the schoolteacher and patriot spy has long been considered an American hero, and was officially designated the state hero of Connecticut in 1985. The popularity of AMC’s series Turn, which brings the hair-raising intricacies of a revolutionary spy ring to prime time television, has brought about a resurging interest in not only the revolutionary era, but also the figure of Hale.

Final moments and famous words?

While no official reports were made of Hale’s final moments, British officer Lt. Frederick MacKensie reflected in his diary of the dignity with which Hale had carried himself both in the hours following his arrest and immediately before his execution. However, it was another British source that served as the likely origin of Hale’s famous quote. John Monstresor, a British officer who was present at the hanging, spoke to his American counterparts under a flag of truce soon thereafter of the memorable dying declaration of the young Connecticut man. American officer William Hull recorded the information second hand, noting that it had been ‘his dying observation’, ‘that he only lamented that he had but one life to lose for his country.’ Within five years of his death, variations of this dying statement began to pervade the public sphere, skyrocketing the popularity of the young patriot martyr. The first such account appeared in the Boston Independent Chronicle on May 17, 1781. In this earliest of versions, Hale eloquently remarked to his British executioners, ‘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.’ Scholars have speculated that if the words were not entirely original, Hale may have been dramaturgically inspired to recite a passage from Joseph Addison’s play, Cato, which reads ‘How beautiful is death, when earned by virtue/Who would not be that youth? What pity is it/That we can die but once to serve our country’. Not without merit, such assertions are rooted in Hale’s learnedness and noted interests in theatre and literature while attending Yale College, coupled with the popularity enjoyed by Cato throughout the colonies during Hale’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1846, when a monument to Hale was erected in his hometown of Coventry, that his now famous words were solidified in their modern familiar form. On the west side of the 45-foot-tall granite obelisk appears the 19th-century variant, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.' By the early 20th-century, the accepted wording in all recounts of Hale's exclamation was modernized slightly to conform to the vernacular of the period, as follows, 'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.'

Hale Homestead

In addition to a number of statues and monuments throughout the United States that invoke the memory of the storied revolutionary figure, the Hale homestead in Coventry has become a popular destination for those looking to learn more about Hale. Built in 1776 by Hale’s parents, the current house was built on the same spot as an earlier home where the young patriot was raised. Today, the Georgian-style home is furnished with a number of Hale family possessions and other period artifacts that were acquired by antiquarian George Dudley Seymour, who purchased the Homestead in 1914.

Learn more:

The Nathan Hale Homestead is open for tours from May through October, while the Hale Homestead grounds are open year round from dawn to dusk. Group tours may be scheduled by contacting (860) 742-6917.

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