“I die hard but am not afraid to go.”
- George Washington (1732-1799)
There is no truth to the belief that his actual words were either “I die hard with a vengeance…” or "Live Free or Die Hard". Nahh, I made that up. The first recorded use of the term “die hard”, in the sense of dying reluctantly, resisting to the end, is from 1703, in Psychologia: or, an Account of the Nature of the Rational Soul. That work argues the pros and cons of a condemned man's approach to death:
Against this Reason he [William Coward] urges the case of those that die hard, as they call it, at Tyburn who will therefore, according to him, out-brave the Terrors of the Lord.
Tyburn in London was the main site for hangings until 1785. Because the “drop” method from a scaffold was not then in use, some hangings were lengthy and prolonged spectacles. Many villains “died hard” as a consequence.
Wider use of the term developed from its use at the Battle of Albuhera in the Peninsula War in 1811, William Inglis, the commander of the British 57th Regiment of Foot, ordered all ranks "Die hard the 57th, die hard!", i.e. to fight until the last. The regiment later became known as the Die-hards.
In 1922, the meaning shifted away from a focus on death towards the modern day meaning of a person who holds stubbornly to a minority view, in defiance of the circumstances. In that year the members of the Conservative Party named themselves 'The Die-hards'.