I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country
Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 – September 22, 1776) was a soldier for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City but was captured by the British and hanged. He is probably best remembered for his purported last words before being hanged: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Hale has long been considered an American hero and, in 1985, he was officially designated the state hero of Connecticut.
Over the years, there has been some speculation as to whether he specifically uttered the famous line:
I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.
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.
The story of Hale’s famous quote began withJohn Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the hanging. Soon after the execution, Montresor spoke with the American officer William Hull about Hale’s death. Later, it was Hull who widely publicized Hale’s use of the phrase. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale’s speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of the account.
If Hale did not give the famous quote, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison’s play, Cato,[an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
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.
From the diary of Enoch Hale, Nathan’s brother, after he went to question people who had been present, October 26, 1776: “When at the Gallows he spoke & told them that he was a Capt in the Cont Army by name Nathan Hale.”
From the Essex Journal, February 13, 1777: “However, at the gallows, he made a sensible and spirited speech; among other things, told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country.”
From the Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, May 17, 1781: “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.”
Hale is in the American pantheon not because of what he did but because of why he did it. Nathan Hale spied on the British because the general’s tent was right next to his schoolhouse. On his way back to the Continental Army, the British broke into his school house and attacked him.—Former CIA chief Richard Helms
And because that boy said those words, and because he died, thousands of other young men have given their lives to his country.—Edward Everett Hale, great-nephew of Nathan Hale, at the dedication of the Hale statue in New York, 1893.