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All Hale Liberty

Becky Akers
Campaign For Liberty
Sept 22, 2010

Pretend for a moment that the second American Revolution now rages. All we C4L folks, Tea Partiers, libertarians, anarchists, States’ Righters, home schoolers — everyone fed up with DC’s dictatorship has grabbed a gun and converged on the Beltway. For one glorious week, we besiege the politicians and bureaucrats, largely because their incredulity that serfs would actually rebel paralyzes them. Our enormous enthusiasm bounds higher.

Then the Pentagon marches a couple regiments of the US Army against us. We retreat, all the way to New York City. Now, almost eighteen months after the first shots flew, we’re depressed and discouraged. We’ve learned how boring, terrifying, and lethal war is, even one for liberty. Many of us have not only lost family and friends, we’ve watched them die. And the stench — of blood, fear, death — hangs everywhere, a miasma thick and inescapable as taxes.

We’re weak and exhausted, too. Seems as though someone’s always sick with a cold or flu, and it roars through camp. Nor does the hunger help: we’re as short of rations as we are everything else.

Maybe that’s why the Feds whupped us so badly last month in Brooklyn. We saved ourselves by fleeing across the East River into Manhattan. And here we’re stuck, quaking, the scent of death stronger than ever because we know the Feds must soon follow and finish us. No wonder nearly half our force has melted away since our defeat. Folks who will gladly die for liberty won’t for a dying cause.


There’s one hope, our only chance: discovering where and when the Feds plan their beachhead, then massing there to repulse them. So we need a spy — but he’ll be as good as dead if the Feds catch him snooping. Who will volunteer for such a risky job this close to the end?

You do, you foolhardy patriot. You know nothing of espionage, only what you’ve seen in James Bond movies. Pretty glamorous stuff — but then, you used to think war was, too.

Still shaking from your last fever, you head to Brooklyn in civilian clothes. Your cover: you’re a teacher needing work, what with school starting despite the civil war. It’s a natural for you since you taught the year after college before enlisting with the rebels. And it works! Just by keeping your ears open as you walk Brooklyn’s streets, you learn virtually everything we need to know: troop strengths, dispositions, plans. So much, in fact, that you write it all down.

Which notes the Feds find when six of them stop and search you one afternoon on Joralemon Street, near the courts. They have no reason to suspect you: indeed, the spread of mass, warrantless searches beyond airports to bus and train stations, highways, and finally sidewalks helped spark our revolt. You understand such searches’ totalitarian logic as the soldiers gleefully haul you inside the courthouse.

There they lay your papers before one of their generals. He doesn’t spare you so much as a glance, just riffles the pages and snaps, “Another terrorist, huh? Take him out back and shoot him.” Now he does look at you — stares in fact. “Or wait. How’s about we have a little chat? You tell us about your buddies over there and their schemes, I’ll let you live.”

Would you accept his deal?

Or would you say nothing so that the soldiers hustle you to the alley, chambering their weapons? More join you on the way, looking for some fun. The one pointing his pistol at your head smirks. “Any last words?”

What does it matter? Anything you say or do will never escape this leering, evil circle. No one will know whether you died bravely defending liberty or denying it, whimpering for mercy. Meanwhile, the rebellion and freedom itself are dying with you. How can you possibly speak from such horrific hopelessness and personal panic?

But a captain in the Continental Army did, 234 years ago today — and his response became one of the first Revolution’s most glorious lines: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” From his perspective, the rebels were as defeated as our fictional ones above. Nor had he any hope that his family, friends, or fellow Continentals would learn of anything he said or did, let alone that his astounding courage and conviction at the gallows would reinvigorate the Revolution.

By a fluke, one of the attending Redcoats visited the Continental lines under a flag of truce later that day; by an even bigger fluke, that witness met with William Hull, one of the Captain’s chums from college. Soon, the tale of Nathan Hale’s martyrdom leapt from the army to Patriots around the country.

Ballads and poems immortalized the young spy, heartening Americans all that desperate fall and winter as the Redcoats scored victory after victory. General George Washington finally turned the tide with his magnificent triumph at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776; how many among the handful of soldiers still left him, who refused to desert whatever the odds, who slogged barefoot through the drifts despite their empty bellies and rags, remained because of Nathan Hale’s unflinching example, his inviolable love of liberty?

The Captain was blessed to be born in a time (June 6, 1755) and place (Connecticut) as obsessed with liberty as our day is with democracy and collectivism. Preachers extolled liberty from the pulpit; newspapers praised it; taverns resounded with its toasts; personal letters often sang paeans to it (Nathan received a letter from a classmate the year after they graduated Yale in which his buddy wrote, “Liberty is our reigning Topic, which loudly calls upon every one to Exert his Tallants & abilities to the utmost in defending of it…”).

Studying at Yale would have reinforced rather than repudiated this fixation. Admission to colonial college required fluency in Greek and Latin; students added Hebrew during their four years of matriculation. College fit a man for the Gospel’s ministry, so boys immersed themselves in the Bible with its emphasis on freedom, the individual’s worth and accountability, and righteousness — even for rulers. They also read such ancient enemies of the State as Cicero. They examined the Greeks’ self-rule as well as the Roman Empire’s “decline and fall,” as Edward Gibbon entitled the tome whose first volume he published the year Nathan hanged. When they graduated, students were experts not only in the grammar and vocabulary of Greece and Rome but in their ideas on government, empire, and freedom as well as those theories’ realization in history.

Perhaps such knowledge accounts for Americans’ extraordinary devotion to liberty. Occasionally, someone might support the British Empire’s quest for more countries to conquer and more subjects to control, but almost everyone on both sides of the upcoming Revolution, whether Patriot or Loyalist, cherished liberty. Their differences arose over how best to safeguard freedom, whether as subjects of a powerful monarch who could protect them from the equally powerful French, or by rejecting England’s overweening administration to establish their own country.

Nathan was teaching school when war erupted at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Patriots exulted as the Redcoats who had marched from their barracks in Boston to seize colonial caches of weapons and rations in the countryside scurried back to the city under farmers’ withering fire. Those farmers settled down around Boston to imprison His Majesty’s forces. The Redcoats tried to break out by storming Bunker’s Hill that June; technically, they won the hill and thus the battle. But their victory was a Pyrrhic one because the siege continued. Worse, their attempt had cost hordes of casualties, prompting one wit to hope that the British would buy another field at the same price.

Nathan enlisted a few months later. Enthusiasm for the rebellion was still high: the war was young, neither the recruits nor their families at home yet suffered much privation beyond loneliness for one another, and the Patriots had enjoyed signal victories in fact if not in name. But as the novelty of camp gave way to the tedium of picket duty and winter’s winds whizzed through the Continentals’ slapdash huts, enthusiasm waned. Many Americans had supposed the war would end with the summer: they fought for liberty, on the side of the angels after all; surely right must triumph over might.

The British finally evacuated Boston in March 1776. But as their transports set sail, Patriots wondered where they would next disgorge troops. Gen. Washington moved his army to New York City since the British would likely invade that populous harbor with its easy access to Philadelphia.

Spirits were ebbing; news that King George III had contracted with German princes to hire their soldiers further dashed American dreams. The British and their mercenaries clashed with the Continentals at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776; watching the enemy surround and then massacre his troops, Gen. Washington groaned, “What brave fellows I must this day lose!”

Providence kindly sent drenching rain that kept the allies from completing their rout of the Continentals. Under cover of darkness the night after the storm, Washington brilliantly evacuated his survivors across the East River to Manhattan. But sooner or later the Redcoats and Hessians would pursue. If only Washington could learn the time and place of their beachhead…

Spying in the eighteenth century was as shameful as pedophilia is today. Decent people loathed spies because they lived a lie, earning an enemy’s trust only to betray it. No wonder captured spies suffered a criminal’s shameful death: hanging.

So Washington probably had little hope of finding any when he asked for volunteers. And the only one who stepped forward was about the worst possible. Nathan Hale was conspicuous: not only was he so handsome that acquaintances always mention that in posthumous anecdotes of him, but his forehead was scarred from gunpowder’s flashing in his face. He was also still recovering from the typhus that had decimated the ranks.

Nonetheless, he donned his schoolmaster’s clothes and slipped behind enemy lines sometime around September 15, 1776. We hear nothing further of him until September 22, when the Orderly Book at British Headquarters reports that a spy “was this day executed at 11 oclock in front of the Artilery Park.”

It’s likely British General William Howe offered Nathan his life to turn his coat. Howe fancied himself a friend to Americans: his brother, George Augustus, was still a hero whose memory Americans honored for his exploits during the French and Indian War, and William himself so admired Americans’ passion for liberty that he had pledged not to accept a command against them if it came to war. Alas, kings with their riches and rewards can be very persuasive. William wound up fighting after all, but he was probably inclined to spare the life of his brave young captive if possible.

It wasn’t. And so Nathan stood with a noose around his neck before bored Redcoats that Sunday morning in September. No friendly face, no comforting smile would usher him out of time and into eternity. Still, as befit a student who had trained for the ministry, Nathan preached the enemy a sermon before they tightened the noose: “He behaved with great composure and resolution…” a British lieutenant recalled, “and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” Nathan closed his homily by saying something along the lines of “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.”

Or at least that’s the way an anonymous article in the Independent Chronicle put it six years after his death. William Hull probably wrote that account; much later, as an old man compiling his memoirs, Hull again eulogized Captain Hale. There he edited the line to its present, succinct form.

It’s a pity he did. By changing “cause” to “country,” Hull turned Nathan’s meaning on its head and his patriotism to nationalism. Nathan died for liberty, not for a country and its government.

Our loyalty, like Nathan’s, is to freedom; we love our country, though never its government, only as long as it reverences liberty. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce [us] under absolute despotism, it is [our] right, it is [our] duty to throw off” both government and country.

Folks may ignore you or laugh at your longing for freedom. They call you a fanatic and roll their eyes as you excoriate our rulers’ socialism yet again. But remember a young spy’s sacrifice as well as what it unexpectedly accomplished, and preach all the harder.

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