Book Review| Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy by M. William Phelps

Kevin F. Smith

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010)






M. William Phelps is an acclaimed investigative journalist and author of more than fifteen non-fiction crime-solving books.  With extensive research, and employing his detective-like analysis skills, he meticulously engages readers in his biography on the life and death of Nathan Hale, America’s first spy and hero from the Revolutionary war.   Prior to Phelps book, it had been several decades since a major biography on Nathan Hale was published.  In personal written correspondence with the author this spring, this reviewer asked Mr. Phelps two questions: (1)  What influenced you to write such a book now? and  (2)  Why did you choose this prominent historical figure when most of your writings are usually centered around less prominent characters in a criminal setting?

In reply, Phelps stated:

 “When you write, the subject matter needs to be something you are passionate about.  I never liked to put myself into a box.  I am open to writing about all sorts of subjects.  Hale was always in my face (I grew up a few miles from Hale Homestead where Nathan grew up).  I saw a desperate need for a nonfiction book about Hale in the marketplace and went for it.”   

In this extensively researched biography, Phelps fully examines the life of Nathan Hale in light of the political, social, religious, and familial influences which lead to his moral character, strong patriotism, and love of God and country.  The author adeptly uses his brush of literary talent to paint an intriguing portrait of Nathan Hale in flowing, descriptive detail.  Written in storybook fashion, the author inspires the reader with a greater appreciation for this esteemed patriot.  We learn who he really was as a person: a daring, bright young man with many admirable character strengths, as well as possessing some inherent weaknesses.  One friend of his accused him of having too much of an “eye” for the ladies after he graduated from Yale.  This wasn’t the Nathan he knew who had been such a serious student during his years in school.

One cannot read this book without ultimately liking Nathan Hale.  We admire his love for adventure, and his desire to fight for a worthy cause.  We also see how this character’s youthful and adventurous enthusiasm for the cause of liberty was employed in a reckless, naive way, leading to his untimely death.  Oddly, he always had a premonition that his life would end by hanging.  In fact, when he was 17 years old, he found himself in a small boat in choppy waters with a friend.  When asked later if he thought he was going to drown, he replied, “I will never be drowned.”  His friend wanted to know how he could be so certain, and Nathan answered, “I am to be hung.”  His reasoning was reportedly based on a superstitious belief that if a person had a mole on his neck with a hair growing out of it, this was a sign that he would die by hanging. 

In an attempt to paint the social and political landscape of the era in which the protagonist lived, Phelps may have delved a little more deeply than the average reader would prefer into the lives and circumstances of Nathan Hale's contemporaries. Although these peers crossed his path in life, and thus had influence of varying degrees, the extensive details of their lives seem less relevant in understanding Hale's life.  Such ancillary excursions, in the opinion of this reviewer, send readers off into territories that occasionally and temporarily dilute the focus of the book.  Similarly, the author provided an overabundance of detail concerning the tactical maneuvering of the British and American armies.  This would be interesting to a scholar researching this time period, but may again thwart the interests of some readers.

There is no denying that as a spy, Nathan Hale was a failure! His efforts to secure timely information for George Washington were futile.  Unfortunately for him, circumstances in the war changed after he covertly traveled over into British-controlled territory. Without better modes of communication to apprise him otherwise, he gathered information that would have been useless to George Washington -- even if he had lived to deliver it.

Nathan also lacked the skill to know in whom he should trust.  For example, while undercover in enemy territory, Nathan had mistakenly placed his confidence in a sophisticated British spy he met in a local tavern one night.  The spy, Robert Rogers, was an American who had become a turncoat for the British.  He convinced Nathan that he was loyal to the American cause of freedom.  Innocently, Nathan fell for his ploy and proceeded to disclose his plans.  The fellow spy then quickly reported him to British authorities who took him captive and later hanged him.   

The author convincingly leads readers to assume that Nathan's failure as a spy was likely influenced by the uprightness of his character. Nathan Hale was not proficient at playing the role of one who must deceitfully carry out clandestine operations. This genre didn't equate with his character.  Spies in his day were generally held in public contempt, even by those who would be the beneficiaries of the information provided.  Nathan understood the potential consequences.  He knew that even with success, this surreptitious role could tarnish his reputation among friends and foes alike, while certainly putting his life in jeopardy.  Some of his closest friends tried to dissuade him from taking on this voluntary engagement. Nevertheless, propelled by his love of God and the anticipated freedoms his new nation would inherit, he was willing to pay whatever sacrifice he believed his patria would require of him.

Although his undercover operation ended tragically, the success of Nathan Hale’s mission, as viewed through the pages of time, has not been measured by the tactical information General Washington had hoped to obtain in out maneuvering British General Howe.  Rather, Nathan’s perpetual imprint in history comes through his unfailing patriotism as he courageously met his fateful death.  His message has become iconic through successive generations of Americans who value this nation's freedoms, and are willing to put their life on “the altar” for a higher cause.  

Nathan Hale believed he had a higher life’s purpose than merely seeking after glory, power, and wealth.  In his heart he felt he had a divine call to help America fulfill God's destiny for this great land. With this strongly held belief, and with his last breath prior to suffering the hangman's noose, he boldly expressed his willingness to die for the cause of freedom and liberties offered by a new nation.

Interestingly, the declaration Nathan made prior to hanging is one of the most misquoted statements repeated through the years.  Many Americans remember Nathan Hale for reportedly saying, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  Historians of the era took poetic license in their efforts to build up the image of a true American hero, not an incompetent spy.  His actual words, as recorded in the Essex Journal, on February 2, 1777, were:

“You are shedding the blood of the innocent.  If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to do it, in defense of my injured, bleeding country.”

In the aftermath of Nathan’s death, the author attentively helps the reader feel the sorrow of his family as they fruitlessly spent many months seeking the whereabouts of their missing son and brother.  The author describes the morbid details which were conveyed ultimately to his family.  Sadly they learned that British General Cunningham had left their son’s body hanging from the limb of a tree for three days following his death.  While rotting in the sun, his body was spat upon and cursed at by British soldiers.  They even went so far as to desecrate his body “as if it were a bulletin board” by pinning his chest with cartoons poking fun at General Washington.  Finally, in pity, a slave cut down the rope hanging Nathan Hale’s body, and buried him in an unmarked grave near the tree where he had hung.

This horrific news would seem too much for any family to bear.  Yet, through their faith in God, Nathan’s family members were able to close this dark chapter of their lives.  The author’s biographical conclusion rings clear: The same foundational faith that had sustained Nathan Hale in his quest to follow God's will, also sustained his family as they put their trust in God's hands and moved forward without their son and brother. 

As a citizen of the United States, reading this biography of Nathan Hale left this reviewer feeling a renewed gratitude for the “founding fathers” and other influential men and women who sacrificed for the establishment of the freedoms enjoyed in America today.  As a Latter-day Saint and follower of Jesus Christ, this reviewer also reflected upon the courage of other faithful individuals throughout history who believed in just causes to the point of willingly laying down their lives for the truths they upheld.  Like Nathan Hale and his family, we can also draw upon the same faith.  Although this life is filled with trials, the key to successfully moving forward resides in one’s ability to place trust in a benevolent Father in Heaven who hears and answers the prayers of his children, and gives comfort to those in need.


Full Citation for This Article: Smith, Kevin F. (2010) "Book Review|Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy by M. William Phelps," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring),, accessed [give access date].

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