On this lunchtime bike ride I went to see a statue of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, which is located outside of the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, located at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in the city’s Downtown neighborhood. I went for two reasons. First, to see the statue itself. But the other reason I went to see the statue was to try to determine why it was located where it is. As far as I know, Hale was not a lawyer or connected in any way to the Justice Department or the Federal government. And he didn’t even have any known connections to D.C. So I was curious why the statue was placed where it is.
Nathan Hale was born on June 6, 1755 in Coventry, Connecticut. In 1768, at the age of 14, he attended Yale College along with his older brother Enoch. Hale graduated with first-class honors in 1773 at age 18 and became a teacher in Connecticut, first in East Haddam and later in New London.
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Hale joined a Connecticut militia unit. His unit participated in the Siege of Boston, but Hale remained behind. It has been speculated by some that he was unsure as to whether he wanted to fight. On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from his classmate and friend Benjamin Tallmadge, and the letter was so inspiring that, several days later, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment.
In September of the following year, General George Washington was desperate to determine the location of the imminent British invasion of Manhattan Island. To that end, he needed a spy for the Continental Army behind enemy lines. Hale was the only volunteer.
During his mission, New York City fell to British forces, and Hale was captured. Hale was convicted of being a spy, and according to the standards of the time, was sentenced to be hanged the next day as an illegal combatant. While waiting for the sentence to be carried out, Hale requested a Bible, but his request was denied. Sometime later, he requested a clergyman. Again, his request was denied. The sentence was carried out the next morning, and Hale was hanged. He was 21 years old.
Hale is best remembered for a speech that he gave just prior to being executed. It is almost certain that his last speech contained more than one sentence, but it is for the following sentence that he is best remembered. His last words before facing the gallows were famously reported to be, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Subsequent to his execution, Hale’s body has never been found.
The original statue honoring Hale was created by American sculptor Bela Pratt in 1912, and stands in front of Connecticut Hall where Hale resided while at Yale. The statue located at the south façade of the Justice Department building near the corner of 10th Street and Constitution Avenue is a copy of this sculpture. The D.C. statue is also part of the “American Revolution Statuary”, a group of fourteen statues in D.C. that are scattered across the city, mainly in squares and traffic circles. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unfortunately, despite visiting the statue and researching it later, I still have no idea why it is located where it is. So if you know why, or have a theory, please feel free to share it in the comments section below.