Did Nathan Hale Really Say that? Part 1: I Only Regret

This week, Mike and I are celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary with a big ol’ vacation!  

To make sure you get your history fix, I have something special for you: Rachel Smith, a dear friend of mine and Nathan Hale expert, has written a five-part series to answer the question: Did Nathan Hale really say that? Come back every day this week for a new post!

(Dreamer updates resume Wednesday April 3rd.)

i only regret says nathan hale

Greetings, fellow Dreamer fans and history enthusiasts!

Now that our collective hearts have been broken repeatedly with the unveiling of Nathan’s tragic fate in the Dreamer universe, Lora and I thought it might be a good time to collectively catch our breath. (Again.) The “real” story of Nathan Hale is no less tragic, as we’ll continue to find out, but I hope to provide a convenient and informative (and lengthy) distraction with another discussion of our favorite Revolutionary War spy hero. You can’t ever have too many of those, right?

In this blog series, I’ll examine the multiple versions of Nathan Hale’s last words through an analysis of the documentary sources we have available to us.  (Insert the sound of cracking knuckles here.) I’d also like to thank Lora for adding images with captions and links to the many relevant Dreamer pages throughout. While she is enjoying her week off, I’ll be monitoring the comments to any questions you might have.  (Historians love a good discussion, so don’t be shy!)

The Uber-Quote

What were Nathan Hale’s last words?

Since Nathan Hale is so often characterized by what he said and did during the last moments of his short life, it’s no surprise that this is the most common question concerning him.

Growing up in Connecticut, I noticed there always seemed to be a consensus that the “correct” version of Nathan Hale’s last words was as follows:

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

I like to refer to this version as “the uber-quote,” since it’s usually spoken with quite a bit of authority.  It’s the version that appears on the most famous statues, plaques, and memorials. But you also don’t have to look very far to find alternate versions of this famous quote, with just a few words changed ever-so-slightly. (“One life to give for my country,” etc.) Even though the gist is always the same, those tiny inconsistencies might make you wonder – how do we know what Nathan Hale said at his execution in the first place? And why is the “uber-quote” so much more popular than the other versions of Nathan’s last words?

The Telephone Effect

You’re all familiar with the old grade-school game of “Telephone,” right?  A bunch of people sit in a circle and whisper a single phrase quickly and quietly to each other, one person at a time. By the time the message has traveled once around the circle, it’s hopelessly mutilated and often completely unrecognizable from the original phrase.  Hilarity ensues!

Except when the message is an important one, the “Telephone” effect is usually more frustrating than funny.  That’s what happened to Nathan Hale’s last words from the very moment he said them.  Can you imagine trying to reverse-engineer a game of Telephone?  How about one that’s 230 years old?

bea asks if washington really had wooden teeth

The ill-effects of a 200 years-long game of telephone.

Even though historians have techniques to help them try to figure out these sorts of things, it’s still not always a clean or pretty process.  It often involves a lot of educated guesses in the end – especially when primary sources are few and far between, as is the case here.  In this series of blog posts, I will list (in chronological order) excerpts from six sources that specifically reference Nathan Hale’s last words, followed by a brief analysis of each, to help us come to a reasonable conclusion based on historical evidence.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Nathan Hale’s Last Words

But before we get to that, let’s kick things off with a handy chart!  Not all documentary sources are created equal – for example, they could be written by an author with an underlying agenda, or contain factual mistakes the author thought were true.  One crucial factor in determining the accuracy of a historical source is its physical proximity – that is, how close it was to the event in question (in this case, Nathan’s execution).  The closer the source is to the original event, the less likely it is to be distorted by the “Telephone” effect.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving accounts written by the actual eyewitnesses of Nathan’s execution – so that rules out the possibility of a “smoking gun” source that would instantly answer our questions. The closest sources we have, as you can see below, are at best “two degrees” removed from the historical event in question.

Nathan Hale Famous Last Words

The above chart is meant to help visualize how “close” our various sources were to Nathan Hale’s actual execution. But that is just one of a number of factors we need to consider. But in order to fully evaluate the accuracy of a source, we also need to take into account the reliability of the author, and how much time had passed before each account was written down.  Keep your eyes peeled for those points as we discuss each of the six accounts in this blog series.  They’re all excellent things to keep in mind if you ever find yourself reading over a historical document of your own.

Remember, just because something is written down doesn’t mean it’s automatically true – which is why critical evaluation is so important in the field of history.

Come back tomorrow when we will examine our first two sources!

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is the Assistant to the State Historian at the University of Connecticut. When she’s not traveling the country in pursuit of historical adventures, she also works as a historical consultant, museum professional, and archival researcher for hire. She earned her M.A. in US History to 1877 from the University of Colorado at Boulder and has her B.A. in History and American Studies from UConn. She can be contacted at SalveAmice@gmail.com.




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16 Responses to Did Nathan Hale Really Say that? Part 1: I Only Regret

  1. Caera says:

    Hey, I got a surprise this morning. I didn’t know this was a 5 part series. Yippee!!!

    I love the six degrees chart. When I have to “go historian” on people it will really help. lol Kevin Bacon…

  2. Julie says:

    Yay history lesson!! (Wow…15 or 20 years ago I’d have never said those words in that order…how times change)

    Can I just say that I’m mildly jealous of the life implied/described in that little biography of yours, Rachel. :) I mean, I’m exceptionally comfortable in the life I lead now, so I wouldn’t jump into anything that would result in radical change (I honestly didn’t mean for the job I took 6 1/2 years ago to turn into a career, but oh well); however, the life of a historian actually seems intriguing and…well, maybe glamorous isn’t the right word, but perhaps fun will do the trick. :)

    I’m just glad I get to visit London so I can hug a little really old history…before being politely asked to step away from the historical artifacts (can’t believe I’m flying out in three days!!).

  3. Faith says:

    You are all so good to us.

  4. Rachel Smith says:

    Thank you, ladies! Lora was hoping for a “discussion” on Nathan Hale’s last words, and I ended up giving her more of a “treatise” — hence, the five parts. ;)

    Julie, I do have an awful lot of fun with what I do. On Friday, for example, I was traveling around Connecticut looking at ruins of Revolutionary War forts with the State Archaeologist, and today I was transcribing Civil War music for a public presentation. My various jobs certainly don’t make for a very glamorous salary, but being a historian is what I was trained to do and I love it all the same. I like making an adventure out of my job when I can, but I also tend to enjoy the parts that most people would find “boring” as well, like archival research — something which I’m sure will be pretty self-evident by the end of this week! :)

    • Julie says:

      Yep…still über-jealous! :) I just have to make historical travel and research a hobby…that I get to do from time to time…and by “time to time” I mean “once a year if I’m lucky.” :P

  5. Brent says:

    My own connecticut upbringing (east-southwest) taught me that they were “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.” Go figure, right?

    Debate mode…… ACTIVATE!!!!

    • Rachel Smith says:

      You’re definitely not alone, Brent! Check out this beautiful wooden wall sculpture, located in the tiny Chamber of Commerce building in Nathan’s hometown of Coventry, CT:


      Of course, there are also several plaques and signs in Coventry that utilize the uber-quote. Go figure, indeed!

  6. Melissa says:

    I’m terribly sad that no one recorded his last words. I mean, it’s Nathen Hale, so from other records, we know he was very eloquent and had a lot to say. And granted, I havent been looking terribly long for better descriptions of his last speech, but the best summary i found was Frederick MacKensie’s diary entry about the day. Look at all he said in those last few minutes of his life, and no one thought ‘People in later years might want to know this?’

    Moral of the story. Write in your journals! keep good and detailed records so the future will know!!! …or at least get a better idea…

    • Michael Nasser says:

      Though when you say, “People in later years might want to know this?” my guess would be it wouldn’t have crossed their minds. As far as I understand, he would have been “just another rebel”. He wasn’t a Knowlton who was renowned throughout the Loyalists as a leader and a solider, he was a scholar unknown outside of academic circles. If the British had won the war, his name wouldn’t have been anywhere in the history books of the “British Colonies of America”.

      History has shown that in war, it is kindest to the winners because they’re the ones who write about the war for future generations to read about.

      • Melissa says:

        Truth, but the point I’m getting at is it still doesn’t cross our minds. What if one of us suddenly became a war hero, or famous for some other reason, but couldn’t live to tell the tale, what information would the historians get further down the road?

        • Julie says:

          Twitter feeds and Facebook wall posts (unfortunately). :P

          • Melissa says:

            Love! It’s the truth. “OMG I went to see Suzy today and we had lunch. #and then I found five dollars”

            Oh dear, poor historians.

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