A Hale Of A Hero: Nathan Hale And The Fight For Liberty
And it also explains why Capt. Hale never uttered his legendary words.
Historians supply many explanations for the American Revolution. The colonists fought for independence, against taxation without representation, to replace a monarchy with a republic. But the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolteachers like Nathan Hale who rebelled against Britain’s powerful empire offered a far simpler, more compelling motive: liberty.
“Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry cried. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a Declaration 55 other delegates endorsed, “…all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, …among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even recent graduates of Yale College obsessed about liberty: a letter 19-year-old Nathan Hale received from his buddy reported, “Liberty is our reigning Topic, which loudly calls upon every one to Exert his Tallants & abilities to the utmost in defending of it…”
Eighteenth-century Americans and Britons revered liberty as modern ones do democracy. Freedom was their highest political value – even if some people denied it to others (hypocrisy that contemporaries mocked: “…how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Samuel Johnson demanded).
But exactly how did our ancestors define liberty?
They saw it as an absence of physical force. No man should compel others to obey him with threats of violence. Each person is free to live his life as he sees fit, so long as he extends that courtesy to everyone else.
And yes, that pretty much vitiates government. The State is nothing other than force, marble monuments and flapping flags notwithstanding. Politicians and bureaucrats pass laws and regulations that coerce victims with fines, imprisonment – or worse. Even “good” laws and regulations rely on violence for their enforcement. That makes government the opposite of liberty; the more we have of one, the less we have of the other. And so the American Revolutionaries fought against government, against its politicians, cronies, bureaucrats, and soldiers, against their power to compel obedience from everyone else. And one rebel, a stunningly handsome, 21-year-old scholar from Connecticut, died in that struggle after the British Army caught him spying on it.
It’s tragically ironic, then, that nationalists have twisted Capt. Hale’s last words into reflexive support for the State.
We don’t know exactly what happened after the British Army arrested him for espionage. But his guilt was clear, thanks to “sketches of the fortifications … found concealed about his person.” General William Howe ordered the captive hanged the next day at 11 AM, though it was a Sunday.
At the gallows, Capt. Hale “behaved with great composure and resolution,” according to a British officer. He “desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” But there’s no mention of the famous line.
In fact, it would be six years before an American newspaper reported something resembling it: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged,” Nathan said, according to the Independent Chronicle, “that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”
The anonymous article’s likely author was Capt. William Hull. He’d known Nathan at Yale, and their friendship continued when they enlisted with the rebels. By chance, Hull heard the story of Nathan’s heroism from a very shaken eyewitness a few hours after the execution.
Like some of his fellows, Hull discovered he liked government better than he’d thought once the Revolution ended – especially when he was one of those ruling instead of the ruled. He would rise to a general’s rank during the War of 1812. And when he wrote his memoirs as an old man, he revised Nathan Hale’s last words, whittling the Independent Chronicle’s cumbersome line to the one we all recognize.
But he also changed “cause” – which everyone knew meant “cause of liberty” – to “country.” Not only would that have been anachronistic in 1776, it betrayed the Revolution’s ideals in favor of loyalty to the government that had paid Hull for so long.
Nathan Hale was no nationalist. He gave his one life for liberty.