As her father's business ventures failed, Hannah Adams and her family supported themselves partially by housing boarders, many of whom were divinity students who tutored her in Greek and Latin. Though frequent childhood illnesses kept her from attaining much formal education, her encounters with these boarders sparked her interest in scholarship and religion. To supplement her family's income during the Revolutionary War years, she made lace and tutored college-bound men, and then thought that she might be able to earn money through the publication of her manuscript An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects (1784), an encyclopedic outline of world religions. With the sale of this book, in which she compiled other scholars' research while striving to maintain an impartial tone, she became the first American woman to support herself by writing.
A shy woman who never married, Hannah Adams became part of a loose-knit circle of influential, intellectual Bostonians, some of whom arranged to provide her with annual patronage so that she could continue writing without relying on a sporadic income from book sales. She continued to publish on history and religion, and her A Summary History of New England caused something of a scandal as she squared off with the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, an orthodox Calvinist, over publication rights for their competing history textbooks. The episode eventually ruined Morse's reputation, as Hannah Adams's coterie of liberal Bostonians rallied to her defense. She also compiled A Memoir of Hannah Adams, Written by Herself (1832), which she left for posthumous publication as a means of supporting her sister.
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