George Washington's Spy

April 4, 2013

How many times have you walked past the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue? You may want to stop and take a look at the statue in the little outdoor alcove. The young man standing stolidly there is Nathan Hale.

Time was every American History book told the tale of Nathan Hale. In the early days of the Revolution he was a Connecticut school teacher and a lieutenant in the state militia. He volunteered to go on a mission behind British lines for General Washington, was caught, and was hanged as a spy on September 22, 1776. He was just 21 years old. 
 
"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country"—those were reported to be Hale’s last words. Whether or not he actually said them is something historians debate. Still, all accounts agree that Hale died bravely. The young teacher has become enshrined in the pantheon of American heroes.
 
Hale was a Yale graduate. Around 1905 a group of Yale alumni began collecting funds to erect a statue of Hale on campus. Since they couldn’t afford to hire Augustus Saint-Gaudens to do the design, they settled for his apprentice, Bela Pratt. The Pratt statue was completed in 1914. 
 
The Michigan Avenue Hale is a 1940 casting of the Yale Hale. The commission came from the Tribune’s publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick. A staunch supporter of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, the Colonel felt that Hale was a sterling model of youthful patriotism. 
 
No contemporary portrait of Hale has ever been found, so Pratt’s rendering has become the accepted image. At least six copies of the Yale original have been erected at various sites. One of these statues of George Washington's spy stands in Langley, Virginia--at CIA Headquarters.