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A patriot must always be ready
A patriot must always be ready

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In September 1776, one of America’s earliest martyrs met his fate at the end of a rope. Nathan Hale, only twenty-six years old, was gathering intelligence for General Washington in New York when the British captured and tried him as a spy. His last words are probably among the most famous of last words in all American history.

“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country.” Whether Nathan Hale actually spoke these words is a cause for speculation. British soldier John Montresor, witness at the execution, related the speech to American officer William Hull (under a flag of truce the next day), and it was Hull that publicized the famous words. He did not actually hear them himself. However, testimony from other British soldiers present support the story.

It is most likely that Nathan Hale was either quoting or paraphrasing the popular contemporary play Cato: A Tragedy. The play depicts an idealistic republican statesman in defiance of Caesar’s growing authoritarianism, and was a strong source of inspiration to the revolutionaries. “What pity is it,” reads the line, “that we can die but once to serve our country.” (Act 4, Scene 4) The present British would have certainly known the play, and understood the implication that King George III is just another Caesar.

If Montresor’s account is accurate, and Hale used the words “my country” as opposed to “our country”, then the meaning becomes even more profound. In 1776, the British considered the American colonies a part of their own nation. Ink scarcely dry on the Declaration of Independence, Hale is standing before the British and saying he will die for his country, not theirs. It is not theirs anymore. Then, with great composure and grace, he stepped forward to the noose and died. It is a tragedy that he had to, but Hale died defending his country from his government. Let us never forget his courage, grace, and patriotism.