Nathan Hale’s One Life

Nathan HaleYou may remember back a couple of years that Eric Cantor celebrated Labor Day by tweeting out, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” It really was a shocking thing, but it tells you everything you need to know about the modern Republican Party: they just hate workers. They are the royalist party, if you will. John Adams would be so pleased. Bearing this in mind, it is Cantor’s birthday, so let me just say: today, we celebrate those who have taken an intellectual risk, worked hard, did something important with their lives, and earned their own success rather than being born into the upper class like Eric Cantor.

On this day in 1755, the American soldier and spy Nathan Hale was born. In September of 1776, shortly after the Continental Congress finally got around to declaring war, Hale volunteered to go into New York, behind enemy lines to find out what the Brits were up to. Within a week, he was captured by the British because someone ratted him out. I’m most fond of the story of him being tricked by a British soldier into revealing himself. Hale was, after all, only 21. And one of the hardest lessons that I learned in life is that you really can’t trust people who you don’t have a very long history with. People will use the smallest advantage against you; and sometimes they will harm you when it does them no good at all. So it’s a cautionary tell, young readers: a week after his capture, Hale was hanged by the British.

He is best remembered for his comportment before his hanging. It is now widely claimed that he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” A British officer wrote at the time, “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” That is interesting, given that his assignment was not an order; he volunteered for the job.

But there is something I don’t especially like about that comment: the idea that any order ought to be obeyed. It’s not surprising that the Nazis used this same excuse for many of the terrible things that they did. But the truth is that this is more or less what all soldiers are expected to do. I know they are now given certain exceptions that they shouldn’t commit war crimes and such, but none of that would stop them from being court-martialed for not following orders. Chelsea Manning, famously tried to work inside the military system and was ignored. And now she is doing 35 years in prison.

It has been suggested that Hale actually quoted Joseph Addison’s play, Cato:

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

That strikes me as very much like Horace, “Dulce et decorum est propatria mori.” Still, I’m not going to fault any young man who goes to his death with such dignity. Even if his death was, as a practical matter, pointless.

Happy birthday Nathan Hale!

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