Saturday, July 16, 2022

Nathan Hale & the Linonian Society Library

College students today have become accustomed to libraries of almost infinite resources. Items not directly placed into one's hands upon request might be available online or through an interlibrary loan. Such was not the case at Yale College in the 18th century.

Pickings were slim, especially for undergraduate students in their first and second years. In 1755, only twenty-eight books were made available for check-out by freshmen and sophomores. Even upperclassmen found their options often did not include books that they were hoping to read.

Connecticut Hall
Yale dorm where Nathan Hale roomed with his brother, Enoch

In 1770, the young men of the Linonian Society decided to do something about this problem. The Linonian Society was a club formed for the purpose of rhetoric and debate covering a wide variety of topics. It is no wonder that such a group of erudite students would desire greater access to the types of titles they wished to discuss.

The notes of their 16 July 1770 meeting record the founding of the Linonian Society Library. Nathan Hale donated some of the initial supply of books. He would also later become the scribe who wrote the minutes for Linonian Society meetings. The Travels of Cyrus by AM Ramsay was one of his contributions.

Nathan also provided a share of the cost of subscribing to The Spectator. One of the founders of The Spectator was Joseph Addison, who wrote the play Cato, which might have inspired Nathan Hale's final words when he was hanged by the British as a rebel spy on 22 September 1776. 

If Hale did say something like, 'My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country,' it is likely that he was inspired by Cato when he says of his son's death in battle, 'How beautiful is death when earn'd by virtue! What a pity is it, that we can die but once to serve our country.' Another report quoted Hale as saying, 'If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down.' This line is also a paraphrase from Addison's Cato when he insists that it would be, 'Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honour.'

Cato is also often named as one of General George Washington's favorite plays, and it was put on by soldiers during the harsh winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge. Nathan Hale probably wouldn't have known of the general's preference and died before this production, but it makes his choice of last words more poignant since it was Washington's desire for information on the enemy that led to Nathan's death. 

The Linonian Society continued to build and care for its library for a century. In 1871, the titles were transferred to the Yale library, which had also improved in the intervening decades. These titles, bearing a bookplate designating them as Linonian property remain part of the Yale library today.

Read more about Nathan Hale in But One Life, available worldwide in paperback and for Kindle.