Nathan Hale – Hero or dumb ass?  You decide.

Hello everyone,

If you read the chapter in my book (Lessons from the Road: USA) on Oregon, you would know that sometimes history paints people in a different light that does not necessarily reflect the true nature of the person or occurrences that are said to have happened. Every now and again, I give a guided historic walking tour of Hartford CT. One of the people that I talk about on my tour, is the state hero Nathan Hale.
Most of the information I received from Nathan Hale was from tours I had attended at the state capitol. I had the pleasure of visiting the Nathan Hale homestead in Coventry CT this weekend.

I was anxious to find out any new information that I could add to my own tour regarding my state hero, Nathan Hale.

I ended up being that irritating person on the tour that was a little over exuberant and had a million questions. By the time we got to the second room it was clear I needed to curtail my questions but not before I got the answers to all of my burning questions answered by the awesome Miss Mollie.

Just as a reminder as to why Nathan Hale was significant in American history, he is credited as proclaiming prior to being hung for treason against the British

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan grew up in a very large family his mother died at childbirth upon the 11th child that was being born. Nathan’s father remarried and his stepmother had seven other children. Nathans father became a wealthy merchant and could afford to send some of the children to college. Nathan’s father was quoted as saying that Nathan was the smartest of all his children, and therefore he would be provided higher education and attended Yale with his older brother Enoch. Back in the day, there were only three degrees that you could earn at Yale. You could earn a degree to be a minister, a school teacher, or a lawyer. Nathan attended Yale at 17 years old and decided upon becoming a school teacher. After school, he began teaching classes.

The revolutionary war was raging and after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where five of his brothers had fought, he decided that he would join the revolution as well. He decided that he wanted to be a captain. Evidently in those days, you could actually buy your way into the position vs earning it and that’s exactly what he did.

George Washington sent out a request among his troops for folks to be spies in New York and provide intelligence back. Back then there was a strict code of honor regarding warfare and being a spy was not looked upon very well by anyone. Poor George was not getting any of the volunteers he needed. Suddenly, Nathan decided to volunteer for the role.

Nathan went to New York he wasn’t there but two weeks before he got caught. There are two stories being told about how he got caught. I will share both with you. At the state capitol, the story is being told that he had a cousin who was loyal to Britian and saw Nathan in New York and knew he was a rebel. Nathan’s cousin ratted him out to the British.

The story at the Hale Homestead on how Nathan was caught was that a British officer went to him and said “Hey, guess what? I’m a spy for the Revolution.” and Nathan said “Me too!” Ever meet that guy that was a genius, absolutely brilliant and yet had no common sense whatsoever? Yeah, I think Nathan kind of suffered from that.

To make matters worse once they caught him they found that he had kept notes on paper in his shoes and socks which incriminated him. Evidently he was a bit of a pompous ass as well, and figured that because he was so educated that he would write everything in Latin and nobody would be able to read it, instead of using a code. Unfortunately for Nathan many people back then read and spoke Latin because it was the church’s language.

Nathan was executed by hanging on 22 September 1776. At the tender age of 21.

There was some conjecture among historians as to whether Nathan actually said those famous words that he was credited for saying that “I regret that I have but one life to live for my country.”

Those words were very significant because there really was no “country” at the time as far as the British we’re concerned. It was the first public acknowledgement of the United States of America. Although some historians do not believe that Nathan Hale said those famous words. The folks at the Nathan Hale Homestead beleive that he did say these words, due to discovery of an entry in a ledger from a British officer that documenting the hanging and he indicated that Nathan had said those words.

Sadly, No one knows what became of Nathan other than there was an account that his body was left hanging for 5 days. Nobody knows where his body ended up after that.

All of the statues and pictures of Nathan are only artists interpretations. There are no pictures of Nathan so we do not know what he looks like. Given that there are pictures of some of his relatives, including his father and brothers, chances are he did not look anything like the artist’s renderings.

So there you have it. Nathan Hale in a nutshell. Hero or dumbass, you decide. I like to think he is a little bit of both.

I’d love to hear your opinion on whether Nathan is a hero or a dumbass please put your comments in the blog.

P.S. The Nathan Hale Homestead is very close to the awesome Coventry Farmers Market. Which by all accounts, is the best Farmers market in all of New England. I hear they have all kinds of things to see and do as well as live musical performances at the market. So make a day of it and check both out on the same day. The market is seasonal from the weekend after Memorial weekend to the beginning of October.


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Lessons from the Road, USA shares the travel adventures of a funny, single, 50-something year-old woman, traveling across the U.S. in a pickup truck. Webster is navigationally challenged and yet strangely addicted to camping sites and critters. She visits monuments of historical or personal significance and meets some fascinating people along the way!

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3 Responses

  1. Personally, I think he’s a hero, a BIG TIME HERO. So what, he paid money to be a Captain. At least he wasn’t some prissy Tory. Inexperienced as he might have been, at least he was brave enough to volunteer for this particularly dangerous spy mission when no other man would. As much as I like Washington, I think his plan to send someone to New York for the purpose of seeking intelligence was stupid and desperate, so I blame him for Nathan Hale being caught and executed. What kind of “spy” instruction did Hale receive? Obviously it was VERY basic or better yet, did anyone even “teach” him how to spy. It seems like he was literally “flying by the seat of his pants”. Did Washington even use a written code at the time Hale volunteered? If he did, Hale obviously wasn’t given any instruction on how to use coded writing, because I’m pretty sure he would have used it instead of writing everything in Latin. A Queen’s Ranger named Robert Rogers is the officer who first spotted Nathan Hale, because he stood out like a sore thumb. He was “too clean, too handsome and didn’t look like the other Tories that were living and visiting Long Island at the time.” Nathan Hale didn’t have a chance when he befriended an experienced veteran like Robert Rogers. Give the guy a break, Nathan Hale didn’t have the experience and was too good-natured. He did something brave that no one else volunteered to do. Calling Nathan Hale a pompous ass with no common sense is a little harsh.

    1. Hi Kelly,
      Awesome insights! I learned all about the Queen’s rangers and Mr Rogers because of this. I found it interesting that neither the state capital tour or the Hale Homestead discussed that. But it is definitely something to add to my Hartford historic tour.
      As for your statement that he was too handsome, that is conjecture. According to the good folks at the Hale Homestead, no one knows what he looked like. Given his father’s and brothers pictures and Nathan’s own shadow portrait on the back of the door at the Hale Homestead, I’d venture to say probably not so much. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. None of those artifacts suggest he might have been what we would refer to as a stud.

      As far as him sticking out like a sore thumb, the docent did tell a story that he did make some attempts to fit in because he took his fancy shoe buckles off his shoes and handed them to another person and instructed him to return them to his family should anything bad happen to him. That person did indeed return them to his family after Nathan was hung. Also according to the Hale Homestead tour, People back then took a bath only a couple of times a year and the Hale family was no exception. Although being a school teacher does not lend itself to getting your nails dirty or your hand calloused.
      I suspect you are correct about him not getting much instruction to become a spy. It sounded as if the spy business was not something military people condoned at the time nor did they have a protocol for it. There probably wasn’t any training at all.
      I will say that the good folks at the Homestead did use the words “a bit of a Pompous ass” in the tour to describe Nathan.
      Thank you for your insight though, I am glad you responded. I learned some valuable insight on Nathan and his demise.

  2. I too went to the Nathan Hale Homestead and… yeah sorry Nathan Hale, total idiot. I was expecting a cool tale and was just speechless after hearing about him. He went to New Amsterdam (New York) and his big disguise was pretending to be Dutch, only he couldn’t speak Dutch… in a city called New Amsterdam. Wow… just sheer stupidity. Poor guy.

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