A graduate of Yale University, Hale joined a Connecticut regiment in 1775 and served in the successful siege of British-occupied Boston. In the summer of 1776, he crossed behind British lines on Long Island in civilian clothes to spy on the British. While returning with the intelligence information, British soldiers captured Hale near the American lines and charged him with espionage. Taken to New York, he was hanged without trial the next day.
Before being executed, legend holds that Hale said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." There is no historical record to prove that Hale actually made this statement, but if he did he may have been inspired by the lines in English author Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato: "What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country."