Terrific biography brings life to Revolutionary War hero
Apr 13, 2009
Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of the First American Spy by M. William Phelps is an interesting and enlightening look at a much mythologized character from American history. Nathan Hale sounds like the kind of young man every parent wants for a son. Smart, loyal, and devoted to his family and friends, Hale attended Yale as a young man and soon determined to to become a teacher. He worked at two different school districts before signing on to the Colonial Army. Hale was driven by a desire to defend his country's liberty as shown through letters to his friends and family. Phelps portrays him as the stereotypical All American boy with a great deal of faith. Reading about the quest General Washington sent him on seems a bit like watching a train wreck happen. It seems ill thought out and doomed from the start. Hale was well known throughout the area as a teacher and took his own identification papers with him to appear as a teacher looking for work as he went through British territory to gain information about their troops and movements. Phelps offers an alternative way for Hale's capture instead of the usually accepted betrayal by a Tory cousin. I've read evidence for both, and Phelps' seems viable. Hale probably never said the words attributed to him: I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country. The words are similar to those from a play by Cato and were attached to him well after his death in a newspaper article. Hale was stoic and loyal to his country to his ignominious end by hanging. The saddest part of the book for me was the lack of outrage after his death. His brother was forced to track down Nathan's regiment and do his own investigation to try and discover what happened to him. There were no newspaper articles or declarations released by Congress or Washington. The war went on, and Hale's death was nearly forgotten for several years until a newspaper wrote an article about him and his death birthing the legend that we all read in history books today. The book loses its power toward the end and drifts just a bit. That said, Phelps illuminates the true story of one of the first American martyrs.
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