The second of five children born to Thomas Adams and Elizabeth Clark, Hannah arrived on October 2, 1755 in Medfield, Massachusetts. Elizabeth died when Hannah was 12, leaving Thomas to care for the children as best he could. He later remarried and added four more children to the family. During Hannah’s early years, her health was poor a good bit of the time, so she was unable to attend school.
Her father earned his living boarding divinity students who were attending Harvard and also worked as a tutor. Hannah attended a large percentage of Thomas’s lessons, so in addition to tutoring his students, he educated his daughter in the process. Through his instructions, Hannah developed a working knowledge of Latin and Greek. When she was 17, Thomas found himself bankrupt, forcing Hannah and her siblings to locate work. During the American Revolution, she learned to make lace and began to teach.
A special interest in religious history was cultivated in Hannah when one of her father’s students offered her a book on the subject, written by Thomas Boughton. Entitled, An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the Word to This Perfect Age, Hannah found herself lost in its text shortly after opening the book. After she finished it, she was quick to find others of like topic.
Though she developed an interest, Hannah also discovered a frustration with what she read. Making her way through a number of religious history books, Hannah’s frustration was generated by the self-serving and contradictory ways in which religion was presented by the various authors. In an effort to relieve this same frustration for others, Hannah decided to create a religious dictionary which would show no partiality to any belief system.
Beginning the book in 177, she accomplished her goal of completing the project without bias. She titled her work, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. Though a best-seller of sorts, in view of the fact all published copies were sold, the financial fruits of Hannah’s efforts were pilfered by her agent who then absconded with all the profits, leaving her with nothing. Through her efforts, Hannah was the first woman in the United States to become a professional writer. Though she made little money from her writing, she did secure a measure of fame, along with a good many friends. One such individual was Abbé Grégoire with whom she carried on an extensive correspondence over the years and gained his assistance in the process of creating her book, History of the Jews, published in 1812.
Needing an income on which to subsist, Hannah opened a school. She also began to lobby Congress for the first copyright law to be passed in the United States. Her efforts proved fruitful when the law went into effect in 1790.
With the copyright law now in place, Hannah published a second edition to her book the following year. This book received a much shorter title, A View of Religions and was well received in both the United States and England. In an effort to continue her research and writing, Hannah began corresponding with members of the clergy, along with various religious scholars overseas.
She released her next book in 1799, also history, but this one was not centered on religion. Entitled A Summary History of New England, Hannah’s book soon birthed a bit of a scandal when she discovered herself at odds with Reverend Jedidiah Morse. The orthodox Calvinist had also written a history textbook on the same topic and the two authors found themselves squaring off regarding publication rights. Morse’s reputation was quickly devastated due to the multitude of liberal Bostonians who rallied to Hannah’s defense.
In the end, the moral victory went to Hannah; specifically due to the fact public opinion harbored a good bit of resentment towards what was considered to be Morse’s indifference to the welfare of an aged woman of modest means. Her revised edition was released two years later – An Abridgment of the History of New England.
Hannah never traveled far from her place of birth. The only trip she took on water was approximately 10 miles in distance, from Boston to Nahant. Over land, she traveled to Providence. She was, however, a popular guest within New England society, socializing with a loose-knit circle of intellectual Bostonians whose influence helped to provide Hannah with an annual patronage. Counted among her friends were such individuals as Joseph Buckminster and William Shaw, founders of the Anthology Society, forerunner of the Boston Athenæum.
Hannah would spend her life writing and publishing religious texts of various sorts. She also wrote an autobiography, A Memoir of Hannah Adams, to be published after she died. Mrs. Hanah F. Lee edited the text, in addition to inserting additional information. The work was published in Boston during 1832. In the book, Hannah described herself as a Unitarian Christian. The proceeds from publication were used to support her sister.
Hannah remained single throughout her life and had no children. During the winter of 1831, she died in Brookline, Massachusetts and was buried in Cambridge’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery on November 12, 1832. The inscription on her tombstone proclaims Hannah Adams to be the first individual buried in that cemetery; however, she was actually the ninth.
During her life, Hannah was considered to be one of the most famous women in America; however, the passage of time has seen her name become relatively obscure. The Boston Athenæum, however, is one location where her memory is alive and well. Not only can one find a collection of her letters and some early editions of her books; her portrait, created by Chester Harding, is also on display.
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I now possessed, I should have thought it the height of earthly happiness. But I was now too far advanced in life to profit by the advantages I had gained. However, I was grateful, and happy. My friend William Shaw, Esq. gave me the liberty of frequenting the Athenæum. Amidst that large and valuable collection of books, I found an inexhaustible source of information and entertainment; and among other advantages, I found a few literary friends, in whose conversation I enjoyed ‘ the feast of reason and the flow of soul.’