Quote from Nathan Hale: what exactly did he say?

Quote from Nathan Hale: what exactly did he say?

In 1776, Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale was hanged by the British for espionage. Is it true that his last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”?

Those are noble words worthy of a brave Continental officer. No knowledgeable historian would call them inconsistent with Nathan Hale’s character. He was a volunteer who dared a dangerous task, conducted himself like a gentleman after capture, and went bravely to the noose. His character isn’t being questioned, but did he actually utter these immortal words?

The evidence for the traditional quote comes from a British officer, Captain John Montresor, who told it to Hale’s friend William Hull. The quote sounds paraphrased from Act IV of Joseph Addison’s inspirational play Cato, one of Hale’s favorites. “What pity is it, that we can die but once to serve our country!” in addition to this quote, Patrick Henry’s popular proclamation, “Give me liberty or give me death” also derived from Addison’s play.

Hale may have said the words, or something like them. Or Hull may have revised or mis-heard them, or Montresor may have gotten them wrong in the first place. There were only a few eyewitnesses, and versions didn’t take long to begin wandering. Revolutionary-era media printed several variants on the theme, all of which make Hale sound like a valiant martyr.

What is beyond doubt, Hale was captured and legally executed as a spy. Before he died, he gave a rousing oration befitting a Yalie and a die-hard continental patriot. This didn’t stop his captors from putting him to death, but it did inspire them to tell the story, speak his name with respect, and describe him as a hero, which British officers did not often do of their colonial counterparts.nathan hale

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