Knickerbacker, John
Diary of John Knickerbacker, Jr., law student of Waterford, Saratoga County, New York, kept while attending the New York State and National Law School at Ballston Spa, New York, 1849-1850.

Folio, 44 manuscript pages, bound in later nineteenth century cloth, entries dated 18 November 1849 to 2 June 1850 (although not dated, the entries appear to continue till 15 June 1850); boards worn, damp-stained, some chipping to edges of text, minor spotting to a couple of leaves, one leaf loose, written in ink, in legible hand, written on large full pages.

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While the diary is not signed, there is enough internal evidence to attribute authorship. A small piece of paper laid in identifies the keeper of the journal as named “John” and that he has a sister with the initials “J.C.C.” Other evidence shows he was a law student at the New York State and National Law School during the course of the journal (1849-1850). The diarist mentions the names of some of his class-mates (Christie, Douglas, Putnam, and others). He also states that his Aunt and Uncle were Abram and Mary Ann Knickerbacker, their daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his sister Mrs. R. A. Grout. Research online finds a “Catalogue and Circular of the State and National Law School, at Ballston Spa, N.Y.,” published at Troy, New York, in 1851. This pamphlet shows the names and places of residence of the juniors and seniors of the law school. The names of some of the seniors match the names of the students mentioned in this journal offered here, and there is a “J. Knickerbacker, Jr.” who is mentioned as a senior at the law school from “Waterford,” New York. Genealogical research on, shows that his sister “R.A. Grout,” is actually Rebecca A. Knickerbacker, of Waterford, New York, who had married Solon Grout, and further genealogical research shows Knickerbocker had a sister Jane Chester Knickerbacker, who married a William Orr Cunningham, giving her the initials of “J.C.C,”

       John Knickerbacker, Jr. (1826-1856)

John Knickerbacker, Jr. was born about 1826 in Waterford, Saratoga County, New York. He was the son of John Knickerbacker (1784-1862) and Caroline Chester, of Schaghticoke. Knickerbacker, Sr., later moved to Waterford where he was a president of a bank. Both his grandfather Pvt. John Knickerbacker (1751-1827) and great grandfather Col. John Knickerbacker (1723-1802) were veterans of the American Revolutionary War.

John Knickerbacker, Jr. attended Union College at Schenectady, New York, and then studied law at the New York State and National Law School located in Ballston Spa, New York, where he graduated in 1851 (he was a senior that year). He was a member of Delta Phi.

The State and National Law School was an early practical training law school founded in 1849 by John W. Fowler in Ballston Spa, New York (Saratoga County), thus Knickerbacker is one of its first graduates. It was also known as New York State and National Law School, Ballston Law School, and Fowler's State and National Law School.

The school was one of the first in the country to provide practical training for law students, rather than just academic lectures on legal theories. The school began in the former Sans Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa, but only stayed in the facility for three years. The school was under supervision of a Board of Trustees appointed by the New York State Legislature, which included several members of the New York State Supreme Court.

The National Law School used very advanced teaching methods for its time. Students were assembled into mock trials, playing all the courtroom roles; witnesses, bailiffs, jurors, and attorneys. The professors were the judges, and the teams of attorneys were given a set of facts to work with to build their case. The journal offered here gives insight into this method, as our author recounts the various mock trials he had to prepare for and participated in with his fellow students.

The institution struggled financially and also encountered problems with its facilities in Ballston Spa. President Fowler made the decision to relocate the law school to Poughkeepsie in late 1852. The law school closed in the early 1860s as the result of declining enrollment caused by the volume of potential students joining the military during the American Civil War.

John Knickerbacker is found in the 1850 Census enumerated at Milton, New York, adjacent to North Ballston Spa, where he was listed with 13 other law students at a boarding house of George and Amelia Hall. Knickerbacker was enumerated in Saratoga Springs as a boarder with his sister Margaret Walbridge’s family in the New York State Census of 1855, although no occupation for him was listed.

John Knickerbacker, Jr. died on 24 April 1856 in Waterford and was buried in the Waterford Rural Cemetery.

Sample Quotes:

     When the diary begins, Knickerbacker is attending the New York State and National Law School, Ballston Spa, New York. He recounts the daily events of a law student, preparing for classes, attending lectures of professors and guests, participating in mock court trials, giving speeches for recitation class, plus various projects he is working on for school, and social events and activities with friends, visiting family, and going to parties and events, as well as a vacation to Washington, D.C., where he attends sessions of the Supreme Court and hears Daniel Webster argue a case. He also attends Congress and hears various politicians giving speeches; his favorite being Henry Clay. His hometown of Waterford is close enough that he can take a train home to visit his family regularly, although he boards in a boarding house near the school.


“Nov 18th 1849         Journal composed of general matters interesting to the author for whose benefit alone they were written. National Law School.

Sunday spent at Schenectady, while there remained with my brother delts, sleeping with friend Tobey, and boarding with Mr. Hearsey. Attended church twice, heard both morning and afternoon Geo. Foote a graduate of old Union and a true delta phi. Sunday evening was with J.J. Christie and Geo Douglas at Putnam’s room, where we spent an hour or more, I trust to the edification of all assembled.

Monday. How unpleasant! It commenced raining very early, and has continued all day dropping, much to the apparent dissatisfaction of the representatives of the Nat. Law School. Most of the time has been occupied in preparing a speech describing the great battle of Eylan, which took place in the mid-winter of 1807 between Napoleon on the part of the French, and Benningsen at the head of the Russians…”

 “Nov 20. Again unpleasant, attended recitation had but poor lesson. Tomorrow commence Story on Contract, which is a fine work. Took part in a drill speech this afternoon describing the Battle of Eylan…The day was concluded where I met Amasa McCoy who was as usual sharp and cutting.”

“Nov. 21. At last pleasant, the sun once more with its genial rays has enlivened all nature. The day has mostly been passed in reading the first 60 pages of Story on Contract which I find unlike most law interesting, and instructive. As usual a lecture was given by John W. Fowler, in the evening upon the subject of Oratory the object of which was t show how much more impressive an address might be made by variations of the voice, and gestures…”

“Dec 8th. Not feeling very well did not attend the usual recitation. Took the cars at eleven and found a welcomed reception at home where were Uncle Abram and Aunt Mary Ann Knickerbacker together with cousin Mary, Elisabeth (their daughters) who like myself had come to spend the day. Was at Lansingburgh called at Margaret Walbridge and saw her fine boy (John H.). Found at Waterford my sister Mrs. R.A. Grout who is to make us a visit of about three weeks. In the evening at half past seven took the cars for Ballston where we arrived at quarter after nine, leaving my valise at the Law School I immediately went to classes where our class were to give a supper as a mark of their respect to their late Professor W.J. Odell. I found they were just seated at the table, took my place, and partook of the nice things with which the table was loaded. In season Mr. Whittaker spoke in behalf of the students and was well answered by the Prof. himself. We remained till after eleven when all together retired.”

“22nd [Jan 1850] Our morning exercise was attended by Judge Hayden who has already accepted a professorship in our institution, and certainly a great addition, being well versed in a knowledge of law. He has already written a work highly spoken of upon the practice. P.M. prepared and made a drill speech before Mr. Fowles, upon the Druids, rather a dry subject with so little preparation ergo made rather a dry speech. Look over our morning recitation and in the evening attended a party at Mr. Booths, where were assembled the elite of the place, Miss Montague was the chief attraction of the evening, at about twelve we broke up and were carried home by a sleigh prepared for the occasion.”

“Feb’y 2d [1850]

Saturday – At an early hour received a call from Thomas who had come up to spend the day. As our lesson was of no great importance, I contented myself with a mere perusal – investigated some what farther my law case (one of damages for breach of contract) and at two with a jury, and Justice Christie in chair proceeded to trial, the attending preliminaries before summing up were gone through with to wit direct & cross examination, objections &c., the jury fortunately for my poor client disagreed, and the case was referred for further trial. In the evening at 6 ½ brother left with cars, spent a few moments in congress but did not take part as the description was of old standing.”

“Feb’y 11th As Judge Hayden had gone to Albany with the intention of removing his library to our school, I did not attend recitation, though as usual I read over the lesson assigned. I spent most of the afternoon at court, heard Porter and Beach sum up upon a slander case, Beach made an excellent effort. Commenced today boarding at Mr. Chases, this evening attended singing school, conducted Miss Brown and Miss Harris home together with Dean Lodge. 11 ½”

“May 13 [1850]. Returned this morning once more to resume the pleasant though arduous duties of a student at law, having passed the greater part of my vacation at Washington in an agreeable, and I trust profitable manner. While there I heard most of the Senators speak, but with none was so much pleased as with Clay, who I saw at one time mild, at another so enraged with Benton who accused him of acting in an unparliamentary manner, that he stamped the floor with anger, his piercing eye speaking the thoughts of his heart. Attending the Supreme Court, I listened with much attention to Daniel Webster during his argument upon the settlement of claims against the United States, which though not interesting to a stranger to the cause, was heard with more than usual attention by the eight judges. Through the politeness of friends, I was introduced to Messrs. Cass Douglas of Ill., Fillmore of N.Y., Marcy of N.Y, Foote of Miss, Schoolcraft of N.Y., & many others. Called upon the President introduced to Mr. & Mrs. Bliss; Visited all the Public Buildings and in fact saw all that Washington City had to exhibit. Was at Georgetown, college, nunnery, & stopped at Alexandria in route for Mount Vernon, at the later place we saw where the ‘Father of his country,’ died & was buried and a most lovely ‘tho sadly neglected spot’ it is, the scenery as you look above & below on the Potomac is passed description. Saw also the Washington Monument raised only fifty feet, was at the Smithsonian Institute & heard Professor Beck of N.J. lecture upon the science of nature. While absent stopped at Baltimore one day, also at Philadelphia for a short time. Arriving at New York remained there from Tuesday Evening until Friday evening when I left for home where I remained, reading, writing, riding, visiting &c, until I left for Ballston.”