J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Meeting Hannah Adams at the Library

I just noticed that the Boston Athenaeum’s featured author for November and December was Hannah Adams (1755-1831). Noah Sheola’s essay says:

Afflicted by chronic ill health, Adams spent her childhood [in Medfield] reading the contents of her father’s ample library. Living on the brink of poverty, the Adamses took in boarders, from whom Hannah learned the rudiments of Greek and Latin. Before long she was doing her part to support the family by tutoring the young men of Medfield who aspired to the college education she could not obtain. Drawing on her expansive reading, Adams began work on an exhaustive survey of Christian denominations, with the aim of publishing a kind of dictionary that would eschew the judgmental tone which, in Adams’s view, marred similar works then in print.
Adams’s liberal religious views became an issue when she set out to prepare a history textbook for schools, and complained about competition from another author, who also happened to be the very orthodox Congregationalist minister at Charlestown.
Her subsequent work, A Summary History of New England (1799), became the basis for a bitter dispute with Jedidiah Morse [1761-1826], author of the hugely successful Universal Geography, when in 1805 Adams wished to publish an abridgment of her history for school use. Morse was preparing a similar work and Adams felt that he was impinging on a market to which she had staked claim. Morse, a Calvinist pastor, countered that he had every right to publish whatever he pleased and accused Adams’s Unitarian backers of instigating the affair to bruise his reputation in the context of an ongoing interdenominational spat. While arbiters eventually determined that Morse owed her nothing, the moral victory belonged to Adams, for the public largely resented the pastor’s perceived indifference to the welfare of an aged woman of modest means.
The Athenaeum became a circulating library in 1827, and two years later gave Adams free borrowing privileges. As a poor author she probably couldn’t afford a full membership, and as a woman she probably wasn’t offered it.

(Wikipedia being as it is, I see that about half of its entry on Jedidiah Morse is about his part in the Illuminati scare of 1798. More on that here if you’re interested.)


Stuart said...

Hi --

I've enjoyed reading your blog, and using it as a resource while researching the events of April 19th, 1775 in Menotomy.

One thing has bugged me. In Menotomy, Hannah Adams was the wife of Deacon Joseph Adams, whose house was set afire by the retreating British. She had to run out of the house with her baby in her arms.

On the other hand, this Hannah Adams -- who is a writer -- seems to have been a life-long resident of Medfield.

Your blog posts about the events at Deacon Adam's house in Menotomy contain links to this Hannah Adams. Is that a mistake? Or are these two women the same?

Thanks for helping me clear up my confusion.


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the question and the chance to clarify. These two Hannah Adams are totally separate women. Unfortunately, a lot of people in eighteenth-century America, especially women, shared the same names.

I didn’t devise a way to distinguish people with the same names, so a single label can lead to both Hannah Adams, both Royall Tylers, both Rev. Samuel Wests, all William Smiths, &c.

I did think of an easy way to distinguish Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Annapolis from Alexander Hamilton of New York, but that was the limit of my foresight.