Friday, September 26, 2008

American Vignettes: Portrait of an Idea

A continuing series of original essays of what it really means to be an American and the people who made it happen....


"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" are among the American Revolution's most famous words."

The story leading up to this passionate cry is murky at best. After the disaster of Long Island, George Washington desperately needed intelligence on where the British planned to attack Manhattan Island. Hence, he employed a network of spies.

A twenty-one-year-old captain volunteered for the mission. A graduate of Yale, Nathan Hale had spent time teaching before joining Washington's army. Thus, he naturally employed the cover of a schoolteacher when he arrived at Long Island as a spy.

What happened next is not clear. Hale was captured, but how is a mystery. Some historians claim Maj. Robert Rogers of the Queen's Rangers met Hale in a tavern and befriended him. Rogers pretended to be a patriot. When Hale confessed his true intentions, he blew his cover. Rogers arrested him.

Historian William Jackman had a different explanation for how Hale was taken: "He (Hale) passed to the island, obtained the knowledge desired, notes of which he took in Latin. As he was returning he fell in with a party of the enemy, and was recognized by a Tory relative," Jackman wrote.

However they caught him, the British took Hale to General Howe. After questioning him, Howe ordered Hale hanged the next morning, September 22, 1776, 232 years ago this week.

Historians describe Hale's experience the night before his death as cruel. Caught in a shark's grip, he received no mercy. The British denied Hale access to a clergyman. They ignored his request for a Bible. They ripped his letter to his mother into pieces. The reason for the denials was to prevent the patriots from rallying behind a martyr. One historian quoted the officer in charge of Hale as saying, "The rebels should never know they had a man who could die with such firmness."

But the Continentals did learn of Hale's brave steps to the gallows. Hale's resoluteness could not be kept secret. A British soldier reported his story to William Hull, an American officer. The intellectual Hale took his final phrase from a play called Cato: "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." Hull publicized Hale's bravery and honored him as America's first spy.

Today, the CIA's Langley, Virginia headquarters features a statue of Hale. He is also remembered in stone on the Yale University campus and at the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Nathans Hale's bravery continues to remind others of the value of service, sacrifice and strength. God Bless America.


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