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, Cato (1712)
Death at 21 is always a tragedy, but Nathan Hale’s heroic death 239 years ago today ensured him Earthly immortality. A schoolmaster before the Revolution, he was a Captain in the 7th Connecticut when he volunteered to take on the immensely dangerous task of being a spy, at the request of General Washington, behind enemy lines in New York City. He was soon captured by the British, perhaps betrayed by his Tory cousin Samuel Hale. Interviewed by General Howe, his fate was a foregone conclusion: spies were always to be executed.
The night before he died he requested a Bible and a member of the clergy. Both requests were denied. According to British officer Frederick MacKensie, who was present, Hale met his death with great fortitude:
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.
At the foot of the gallows, before he entered eternity, he uttered the comment that has ensured that his memory will be cherished as long as their is a United States of America. British Captain John Montresor, who was present, told under a flag of truce to American Captain William Hull the next day:
“On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a 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.””
Then the light of the rising sun vanished before the eyes of Nathan Hale, but not, I trust, either the light of the Grace of God or the light of the American Revolution.