Devotion for Week Of June 21, 2010 - One Life to Lose - Nathan Hale 1755 – 1776

One Life to Lose - Nathan Hale
1755 – 1776

Romans 14:8, “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.”

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Tradition states that Nathan Hale said this before his hanging on September 22, 1776. Unfortunately, he himself didn’t write it down. It was passed on secondhand, third-hand, cousin-of-an-uncle-of-a-friend-of-a-brother-style until it made it into the annals of history.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” If Hale did say it, he was likely quoting act 4 of a popular 1773 play by Joseph Addison titled Cato, about the life of the great Roman Stoic Cato the Younger. If it was attributed to Hale by someone paying him honor, then they were borrowing the phrasing.

The proof isn’t in the words themselves, but in the life that led up to the words. That phrase, no matter how pithy, would have been meaningless in the mouth of Benedict Arnold. Instead, it came from a talented, whip-smart, devoted young man who sacrificed everything for the cause of freedom.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” It doesn’t matter if the words weren’t original to Nathan Hale. More important, he lived them.

Hale attended Yale College, graduated with the intent of eventually heading to seminary, but first took up teaching at the boy’s grammar school in Connecticut. With a liberality that belied the times, he also offered classes to the sisters of his students in the name of better educating the women of the country. Those classes started very early, yet they were always filled, partly because of the astounding opportunity and partly, it is assumed, because Nathan was young, single, and apparently quite handsome.

New England sat at the epicenter of revolutionary rumblings and flare-ups, though, and it was not long before he enlisted to play his part. He served as a first lieutenant, and then after General Washington’s reorganization, as captain, with many of his men choosing to stay under him. Finally in September 1776, Hale joined the “Knowlton Rangers,” a special-ops group of only the finest men. It was to these men that General Washington turned for a dangerous mission.

New York City was about to be lost to the British. Worse, Washington had no idea at all about the size of the British troops or any information about an attack that would help defend what would remain. He wanted a spy to infiltrate and report.

Nathan Hale became that spy. Against the council of friends, he crossed over in a longboat to Long Island in early September dressed as a British citizen. He carried a notebook for his observances, which he in Latin, and his diploma. He was pretending to look for work as a teacher. The plan was to stay for about two weeks and then meet the boat again on September 20.

Hale passed the wary fortnight with success, and he had gathered a parcel of crucial information by the time he was to cross back to safety. The night broke cool and brought in with it a mist. Hale slipped from the crowds milling about near the shore and found his way to a rough path that traced along the bay. He found the rock where he’d disembarked, pulled a lantern from his satchel, and readied his signal. The darkness pulled in at him. Frogs croaked with last desperation before winter. Otherwise all was silent. Finally, when it seemed he could wait no longer, there was the splash of oars off in the mist. In a minute the dusky shadow of a boat emerged, and Hale raised the blind off his lantern, the prearranged signal. He waited for the reply.

There was none. The boat beat on, turning now toward shore. Toward him, in a minute he saw his horrible mistake. It was a landing boat off a British schooner. Two men pulled at the oars and a third stood at the bow, ready to leap. Hale’s suspicious signal had been enough cause for them to pursue him, and now he ran, confirming his guilt. They gave chase and soon apprehended him.

His notes, still on him, condemned him.

On the day of his execution, he asked to speak to a pastor and was denied. He asked to see a Bible but was denied.

That evening he was hung.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Those may have been Hale’s final words – or not. But that shouldn’t be his legacy. It shouldn’t be what he means to us. Instead, we should see a younf man who counted sacrifice and honor and put the call of a nation in front of himself. Nathan Hale was saying he would have done exactly the same thing again if given the chance. That is Nathan Hale’s story, whether he said it or not.

“Those who sacrifice essential liberty for temporary
safety are not deserving of either liberty or safety.”

Taken from “Under God” by Toby Mac & Michael Tait

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