Nathan Hale

City Hall is now behind barricades; most people can see Hale only by peering through the iron fence surrounding City Hall.

Nathan Hale

This file reproduces a photo that I took of Hale, which the Memorial Art Gallery used in Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester 2006, p. 108.

This article was originally published in AOB News (the newsletter of the Association of Objectivist Businessmen), VIII:6 (Nov./Dec. 1998), pp. 10-11.

MacMonnies' Nathan Hale is a reminder not of what the Founding Fathers stood for, but of how they stood for it. Contemplating this statue does not reveal the nature of man or how to form and maintain a proper system of government: instead, it shows a man certain that his values are worth defending, to the death if necessary.

Hale stands very upright, shoulders back: proud, but also tense. The long, vertical lines of his coat and the snugness of his vest and pants emphasize how tall and slender he is. His hands gesture - he has just finished speaking his famous words, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." His chin is lifted, another indication of pride. But he frowns slightly and turns his head aside, eyelids lowered as if in disdain. A closer look at the figure explains why.

No eighteenth-century gentleman would willingly have appeared in public with his shirt in such disarray. It appears to have been torn, and makes Hale's neck exposed and vulnerable - a vulnerability emphasized by the high coat collar that frames his neck. Ropes unobtrusively circle his ankles; walking around the statue, one sees that his elbows are also bound, by a rope that stretches behind his back. Nathan Hale is a captive, about to be hanged. The disdain on his face is for his captors and his fate.

How does one achieve such courage, such disdain for imminent death? From the certainty the one is fighting for the right, even if one is not winning. No one merely doing his duty, rather than defending what he believed in, could have the posture and expression of this Nathan Hale.

To make this even more clear, compare the Nathan Hale sculpted by Bela Lyon Pratt a few years after MacMonnies' statue was dedicated. Both figures of Hale are young and slender, both wear jacket, vest and knee-breeches, both are bound hand and foot. And there, the similarity ends abruptly.

The first thing one notices about Pratt's Hale is that his wrists are tied awkwardly to one side: he cannot possibly gesture to emphasize his last words. His shirt is not torn open, so his neck doesn't look vulnerable, and what will happen to him is unclear. His expression is worried, subdued, uncomfortable. There is no defiance in his face, and it is defiance made Nathan Hale famous, not the mere fact of his death.

Comparison with Pratt's Hale also makes another detail of MacMonnies' work more obvious. All of Pratt's Hale is brightly polished and gleaming. In the MacMonnies, only Hale's face, neck and chest are polished, reflecting light and drawing attention, making Hale's situation and his reaction to it more evident. These polished areas are set off against the slightly rough textures of his clothing and against his tousled hair, which casts a deep shadow on his forehead, making its polished brightness stand out more by contrast. In MacMonnies' sculpture, not only the concrete details (posture, drapery, etc.) but the attributes (light and texture) are made to serve the theme.

What can we conclude about Pratt's Hale and MacMonnies'? In Pratt's sculpture, because of Hale's expression and the way his hands are tied, Hale's captive status is emphasized. In MacMonnies' Hale, one notices the upright posture and defiant expression first, the ropes only later - it is his attitude that matters most, not his upcoming execution.

MacMonnies' Nathan Hale is not an abject self-sacrificer, humbly dying for the greater good. He is a man who values something so much that he is not willing to accept the alternative: living under British rule and betraying his countrymen. This is the spirit of the Founding Fathers, of John Hancock, Samuel Adams and their fellows who knew they faced death if captured by the British, but nevertheless fought for what they knew was right.

Of this statue MacMonnies wrote, "I wanted to make something that would set the bootblacks and little clerks around here thinking, something that would make them want to be somebody and find life worth living." [Quoted in Gayle & Cohen, The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture, p. 41.]

He certainly did.

Notes on MacMonnies's Hale

The life-size Nathan Hale was the first major commission gained by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937). Erected in 1890 in City Hall Park, Broadway at Murray St., New York, it stands where Hale was thought to have been executed. Copies are scattered in museums across the United States, since MacMonnies was one of the earliest sculptors to supplement his fees from major commissions by selling reduced-size reproductions to the public. The Metropolitan Museum has a copy, as do the Art Museum at Princeton University and the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College (Amherst, Mass.). Now and then a copy comes on the market - with patience and $100,000 to $200,000, you might be able to acquire one.

Notes on Pratt's Hale

Bela Lyon Pratt's sculpture of Hale, modeled ca. 1898, was cast in 1912 for Hale's alma mater, Yale University, after the committee in charge of the memorial had to regretfully decline the proposed $40,000 fee of its first-choice sculptor, Augustus Saint Gaudens. Copies are at the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Phillips Academy (Andover, Mass.), the Nathan Hale Homestead (Coventry, Conn.), the Headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (Langley, Va.), the Department of Justice (Washington, D.C.), and elsewhere. A good photograph and short history of the work appear in Greenthal, Kozol and Ramirez, American Figurative Sculpture at the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, pp. 316-8.

Further Reading