Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22, 1776 – Tallmadge Rescues Hale

As with any war, victory in the American Revolution could only be won with as much success in espionage as on the battlefield. Nathan Hale, young Yale graduate and school teacher, had joined the Revolution in the Connecticut militia. He rose fast through the ranks from his spirit and dedication to the movement. On September 8, 1776, Hale volunteered to go into British-controlled New York City and gather intelligence.

While Hale was in the city, the Great Fire broke out on September 21. Rumors flew about it being Patriot activity, while others suspected uncontrollable British soldiers, and, either way, the occupying army set upon a course of rounding up potential rebels. Hale was discovered in a tavern by counter-intelligence and eventually captured in Queens where he had fled. He would hang at dawn.

By what very well may have been luck, a contemporary of Hale's at Yale, Benjamin Tallmadge, was in New York. He had been recently commissioned in the Continental Army's light dragoons, but he had become ill and took a short leave. Just as he was coming back to the world, the fire had broken out, and he returned to his Revolutionary efforts hiding Patriots from the British crackdown. When word came that Hale had been captured, Tallmadge planned a desperate rescue.

In the morning, Hale was marched to the gallows. An African boy, Bill Richmond (who would later become a famous American boxer), had been hired by the British to secure the rope to the tree. Tallmadge had gotten to the boy and bribed him an enormous amount of money to have the rope slip. As the drummer ended, Hale was given his final words, and the twenty-one-year-old gave a short oration summed up, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

The trap was pulled, and Hale fell. Carefully filed by Richmond, the rope snapped. Before the British guard could react, a group of Patriots let off a rifle barrage, gathering the crowd's attention. Tallmadge dove through the chaos and whisked away the stunned Hale, who would come out of the affair with a scar from the rope burn around his throat.

New York City would continue in an uproar for several days while Hale was hidden and finally sneaked out in the disguise of a milkmaid. Stories spread like lightning of the man who did indeed have more than one life to give for his country, causing a surge of patriotism across the colonies. Tallmadge was soon made Washington's chief intelligence officer, and he took Hale on as a spy. The two would form the Culper Spy Ring, which would discover Benedict Arnold's betrayal, and Hale himself would apprehend the traitorous general.

After the war, Tallmadge turned to business while Hale went back to teaching. Hale would later be elected a representative from Connecticut to the Constitutional Convention, and he would quickly give his support for Federalism under James Madison's plan. Tallmadge later served in the House of Representatives, being supportive of Hale's higher aspirations. Most famously, Hale would attend the Hartford Convention, giving another speech that stirred the war-weary New Englanders toward support and away from the idea of secession. “After all, are we not Federalists? Are we not Americans? We may not choose ourselves where the will of our country leads, but we may choose to follow the course, rough as it may be.” Here, he bared his scar amid patriotic cheers.

Uniting the Federalists, Hale would win a narrow victory over Secretary of State James Monroe in the presidential election of 1816. In his term, Hale would clarify the role of state's rights, work toward internal improvements, and further bolster international trade. While his economic policies seemed good, they proved perhaps too good for their dependence of European payment, and the Panic of 1820 would usher Hale out of office with James Monroe taking over and the Democratic-Republicans returning to power. Hale returned to the Senate, and the two would prove effective friends, working to balance with the Missouri Compromise and the Monroe Doctrine of defending the freedom of other nations while maintaining ideals of isolationism.

In his later years, Hale would routinely denounce Senator, then President, Andrew Jackson as a political opportunist, bloodthirsty killer, retarder of economics, and “bad fellow.” Jackson replied that Hale was a suppressor of the common man, wild gambler of others' money, and “old man.” The two war heroes bit into each other until Hale's death in 1834. Jackson attended Hale's funeral even though believing that Hale had cost him the 1828 election. Despite their differences, Jackson said of Hale, “He gave every life he had for his country.”

In reality, Tallmadge was elsewhere in the war. Hale hanged, but it was his famous words that excited a fire of patriotism in an America where many were uncertain of independence.


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