Nathan Hale is best known for what are reported to have been his last words, often misquoted or paraphrased, before he was hanged by the British as an American spy during the Revolutionary War. The most authoritative source we have puts Hale's famous last line this way: "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." As M. William Phelps demonstrates in his extensively researched and compellingly written new biography, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy, the young man responsible for these last words was a serious scholar and fun - loving patriot, a man of courage and accomplishment. Phelps takes issue with those who see Hale as no more than one of many junior officers who, had he not died as he did, would not have been long remembered.
Phelps goes to great lengths to separate fact from legend or myth; the footnotes alone make for fascinating reading. Drawing on letters to and from Hale and many other sources, Phelps is able to plausibly reconstruct his subject's life: his youth on a Connecticut farm, his student years at Yale, his time as a teacher, his service as an officer in George Washington's army and his capture and execution in New York. Phelps also keeps us advised of developments in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and troop movements in Boston and other places throughout Hale's life. We get a strong sense of Hale's growing commitment to the new republic and, from his upbringing in a religious home, his understanding that it was God's will for him to fight against England.
Based on Hale's journal during the period when he served in Boston, Phelps shows that he was held to a much higher standard than other captains because he was intelligent, well - educated and well - read. Many others of his rank were illiterate. Also, it is very likely that one of the reasons Hale was chosen for the ill - fated spy mission was his scientific knowledge.
Phelps quotes from the diary of a British officer who heard about the spy's death from witnesses at the scene. They spoke of Hale's composure and resolution and reported that Hale said it was the duty of every good officer to obey orders given by his commander - in - chief and "desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear." This extraordinarily well - documented biography brings Hale and his times vividly to life. Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.