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The ancestry of William Cullen Bryant might have been inferred from the character of his writings, which reflect whatever is best and noblest in the life and thought of New England. It was a tradition that the first Bryant of whom there is any
account in the annals of the New World came over in the Mayflower, but the tradition is not authenticated. What is known of this gentleman, Mr. Stephen Bryant, is that he came over from England, and that he was at Plymouth, Massachusetts, as early as 1632. He married Abigail Shaw, who had emigrated with her father, and who bore him several children between 1650 and 1665, it is to be presumed at Plymouth, of which town he was chosen constable in 1663. Stephen Bryant had a son named Ichabod, who was the father of Philip Bry: ant, who was born in 1732. Philip Bryant married Silence Howard, the daughter of Dr. Abiel Howard, of West Bridgewater, whose profession he adopted, being a practitioner in medicine in North Bridgewater. He was the father of nine children, one of whom, Peter Bryant, born in 1767, succeeded
him in his profession. Young Dr. Bryant became enamored of Miss Sarah Snell, the daughter of Mr. Ebenezer Snell, of Bridgewater, who removed his family to Cummington, whither he was followed by his future son-in-law, who married the lady of his love in 1792. Two years later, on the 3d of November, there was born to him a man-child, who was to win, and to leave,
“One of the few immortal names
That were not born to die."
Dr. Bryant was proud of his profession; and in the hope, no doubt, that his son would become a shining light therein, he perpetuated at his christening the name of a great medical authority, who had departed this life four years before— William Cullen. Dr. Bryant was the last of his family to practise the healing art; for Nature, wiser than he, early determined the future course of Master William Cullen Bryant. He was not to be a doctor, but a poet. A poet, that is, if he lived to be anything; for the chances were against his living at all. The lad was exceedingly frail, and had a head the immensity of which troubled his anxious father. How to reduce it to the normal size was a puzzle which Dr. Bryant solved in a spring of clear, cold water, which burst out of the ground on or near his homestead, and into which the child was immersed every morning, head and all, by two of Dr. Bryant's students-kicking lustily, we may be sure, at this matutinal dose of hydropathy.
William Cullen Bryant came of Mayflower stock, his mother being a descendant of John Alden; and the characteristics
of his family included some of the sterner qualities of the Puritans. Grandfather Snell was a magistrate, and, without doubt, a severe one, for the period was not one which favored leniency to criminals. The whipping-post was still extant in Massachusetts, and the poet remembered that it stood about a mile from his early home at Cummington, and that he once saw a young fellow of eighteen who had received forty lashes as a punishment for a theft he had committed. It was, he thought, the last example of corporal punishment inflicted by law in that neighborhood, though the whipping-post remained in its place for several years, a possible terror to future evildoers. “Spare the rod, spoil the child," was the Draconian code then; and the rod, in the shape of a little bundle of birchen twigs, bound together with a small cord, was generally suspended on a nail against the wall in the kitchen, and was as much a part of the necessary furniture as the crane that kung in the fireplace or the shovel and tongs.
Magistrate Snell was a disciplinarian of the stricter sort; and as he and his wife resided with Dr. Bryant and his family, the latter stood in awe of him, so much so that young William Cullen was prevented from feeling anything like affection for him. It was an age of repression, not to say oppression, for children, who had few rights that their elders were bound to respect. To the terrors of the secular arm were added the deeper terrors of the spiritual law, for the people of that primitive period were nothing if not religious. The minister was the great man, and his bodily presence was a restraint upon the unruly, and the ruly too, for that matter. The lines of our an