Hannah Adams: A True American Pioneer
Medfield native was first American female writer and a pioneer to women's rights.
Hannah Adams was the first woman in America to earn a living by writing and publishing books.
She was born in Medfield on Oct. 2, 1755 to Thomas and Elizabeth Adams, and died in Brookline on Dec. 15, 1831. She was the first person buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
The granite marker in front of her birthplace at 49 Elm St. reads: "Birthplace of Hannah Adams 1755, Pioneer Authoress of America."
Hannah Adams was, indeed, a pioneer of the rights of women as well as writers.
"Hannah," as she is affectionately known in Medfield's history circles, turned to writing as a way of making money after her father's businesses failed and the Revolutionary War was ending, therefore ending the need for woven bobbin lace that had been supporting her.
And she did so at a time when women did not write professionally nor were they welcome in libraries, but Hannah was a determined woman who paid no mind to nay-sayers.
"Hannah seemed more of a phenomenon than a woman," wrote Alma Lutz in her article "Hannah Adams, American Bluestocking" in the spring 1971 edition of The New England Galaxy. "That she was the only woman who ever entered the (Boston Athenaeum) bothered her not at all. She was oblivious of the amusement of the men who thought a library was no place for a 'female' and considered the kingdom of books theirs by divine right."
Reading, writing and nature were her passions and she would often become absorbed in each one.
Hannah was the first person to petition Congress for a general copyright law, and the first woman to enter a United States court of law and bring suit to protect her rights (after being plagiarized by Dr. Jedidiah Morse whom she took to court where she won).
According to an article by Mrs. Olive M. Tilden in the July 1896 edition of The Dedham Historical Register, Hannah inherited her love of books from her father who would have preferred a scholarly profession but was forced in his own family's farming business by his own father (Thomas Senior). After Hannah's grandfather's death, her father leased out the farm (to a man who later proved dishonest) so he could open the town's first bookstore on the property.
As a child, Hannah was thought to be a sickly child and did not attend school but educated herself through her father's books, and with boarders who stayed in the home; some of those men would instruct Hannah, and eventually she too became a tutor in the home.
Oscar Fay Adams in the Aug. 29, 1912 edition of The Christian Register said the incident that sparked Hannah's literary career was that one of the boarders who taught her Latin and Greek had a small manuscript from Broughton's Dictionary (published in England in 1742) that gave an account of Armenians, Calvinists, and other denominations that were most common at the time.
"Her curiosity was aroused in regard to the subject in hand, and she read with eagerness all the books she could obtain which bore upon it. Naturally broad-minded and at the farthest remove from partisanship, she was strongly repelled by the entire absence of candor in the authors she consulted, who uniformly belittled the denominations they disliked and denounced them as 'heretics, fanatics, enthusiasts, etc,'" says the article.
The Dedham Register says that, "Her rules for transcribing were to give no preference for one denomination above another, to present a few of the arguments of the principal sects from their own authors, and in their own language, taking the utmost care never to misrepresent the ideas."
In 1784, Hannah authored An alphabetical Compendium of the various sects which have appeared in the world from the beginning of the Christian era to the present day. With an appendix containing a brief account of the different schemes of religion now embraced among mankind. The whole collected from the best authors, ancient and modern, by Hannah Adams." It would later be known as "View of Religions."
Before it could be published, however, she had to pre-sell 400 copies. The only compensation she received was an additional 50 copies which she had to sell herself; the printer (B. Edes & Sons, Boston) kept the money from the first 400 copies.
Hannah also petitioned Congress for a general copyright law which was ultimately passed in 1783. The printer later notified her that he was going to reprint the book, but Hannah had had the material copyrighted, according to that law she helped pass.
She also authored several revisions to "View of Religions," "A Summary History of New England" (1799), An autobiography (1799), "View of the Christian Religion" (1804), "An Abridgement of the History of New England for the Use of Young Readers" (1805), "A History of the Jews" (1812), and "Letters on the Gospels" (1824).
Hannah had many hardships in her life with the death of her mother at age 12, the death of her dear aunt two years later, the death of her beloved sister later in life, her own poor health, and downturns in wealth, but she was adored by many. She was invited to many social gatherings, was a sought-after houseguest – including at the home of her distant cousin John Adams of Quincy – and was a respected teacher loved by young people.
Said Tilden in the The Dedham Historical Register, "Hannah Adams not only possessed real merit as a writer, but was a person of great excellence of character. Her excessive timidity, which clung to her through life, and which was so great at times as to paralyze her efforts and operate most unfavorably upon her manners, sprang from a genuine humility."
According to records provided by the Medfield Historical Society, Hannah's Italian marble graveside monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery – two feet by six feet high – says, "To Hannah Adams, Historian of the Jews and Review of Christian Sects. This monument is erected by Her female Friends. First tenant of Mount Auburn. She died Dec. 15, 1831. Aged 76."