His now-famous dying speech -- ""I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" -- was not credited to him in 1776, but several decades later. The famous line appears to have been influenced by the line in the play Cato, a Tragedy (1712) by Joseph Addison:
"What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country."
"Mr. Hancock said he had but one life, that he would lose it for his country" was written as early as 1770, about John Hancock (1737-1793).
Wikipedia: Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 — September 22, 1776) was a captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Hale is best remembered for his ""I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" speech before being hanged following the Battle of Long Island.
Widely considered America's first spy; he volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission and was caught and executed. Hale has long been considered an American hero and in 1985 he was officially designated the State Hero of Connecticut. A large statue of Hale is located outside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.
By all accounts Hale deported himself eloquently before the hanging. But it is not clear if he specifically uttered the famous line:
"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
The legend attached to the speech is attributed to John Montresor who was a British soldier assigned to Hale.
Montresor told American William Hull about the event and the speech when he went under white flag to deliver a Howe message to George Washington and Alexander Hamilton Hull (who only had hear say evidence) was to widely publicize the phrase.
If Hale did give the famous speech, it is most likely he was actually repeating a passage from Joseph Addison's play, Cato, an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
How beautiful is death, when earn'd by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.
No official records were kept of Hale's speech.
Robert MacKensie, a British officer, has this diary entry for the day:
"He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear."
Besides the 66th and Third, there are two other sites in Manhattan that claim to be the hanging site.
A statue designed by Frederick William Macmonnies was erected in 1890 City Hall Park at what was claimed to be the site. No authentic likeness exists and the statue established the Hale's idealized square-jawed image.
A plaque erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution hangs on the Yale Club at 44th and Vanderbilt by Grand Central Terminal says the event occurred there.
Nathan Hale's body has never been found. An empty grave cenotaph was erected by his family in Coventry, Connecticut Cemetery.
Wikipedia: Cato, a Tragedy
Cato, a Tragedy is a play written by Joseph Addison in 1712, and first performed on 14 April 1713. Based on the events of the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue,and liberty. Addison's play deals with, among other things, such themes as individual liberty versus government tyranny, Republicanism versus Monarchism, logic versus emotion, and Cato's personal struggle to hold to his beliefs in the face of death. It has a prologue written by Alexander Pope, and an epilogue by Samuel Garth.
The play was a success throughout England and her possessions in the New World, as well as Ireland. It continued to grow in popularity, especially in the American colonies, for several generations. Indeed, it was almost certainly a literary inspiration for the American Revolution, being well known to many of the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington had it performed for the Continental Army while they were encamped at Valley Forge.
Influence on the American Revolution
Some scholars, including historian David McCullough—author of 1776—believe that the source of several famous quotations from the American Revolution came from, or were inspired by, Cato. These include:
Nathan Hale's valediction: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
(Supposed reference to Act IV, Scene 4: "What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country.").
A Fair account of the late unhappy disturbance at Boston in New England: extracted from the depositions that have been made concerning it by persons of all parties ; with an appendix containing some affidavits and other evidences relating to this affair, not mentioned in the narrative of it that has been published at Boston.
London: Printed for B. White
I heard them repeatedly say, "they had but one life to lose, and that they were willing to lose it for their country;" and also said, "that Mr. Hancock said he had but one life, that he would lose it for his country, and why should not they? that they would oppose the troops, and prevent them taking the damn'd bougers out of jail."
Suffolk, ss. Boston, March 14th, 1770.
17 May 1781, The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser (Boston, MA), pg. 1, col. 1:
FOR THE BOSTON CHRONICLE.
Hale had received no such respects, and had none to return; but just before he expired, said, aloud, "I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service."
An abridgement of the history of New-England, for the use of young persons
By Hannah Adams
Boston, MA: Printed for the author, and for sale by B. & J. Homans, and John West
Unknown to all around him, without a single friend to offer him the least consolation, thus fell as amiable, and as worthy a young man, as America could boast, with this his dying observation, "that he only lamented that he had but one life to lose for his country."
November 1812, The Port-Folio, "American Gallantry," pg. 481:
Unknown to all around him, without a single friend to offer him the least consolation, thus fell as amiable and as worthy a young man as America could boast, with this, as his dying observation -- that "he only lamented that he had but one life to lose for his country."