Robert's Rules of Order, 1876
An appealing framework for civil discourse and the democratic process that may seem quaint in an increasingly partisan and polarized world.
Who hasn’t been in a meeting like this? It’s not entirely clear who’s in charge, or the person who is, is clueless. Nobody knows quite how to proceed, or more likely everybody thinks they do and so the discussion can be unpleasant, difficult, counterproductive, even paralyzing. Then, at some particularly critical and contentious point, somebody will get really frustrated and fed up, and will blurt out the dreaded “Point of order!” in a vain attempt to resolve the situation or just get the upper hand.
That, in my experience, is the beginning of the end. Then starts the scrambling for rules, often making them up as you go along, feelings get hurt, the volume rises, and everybody might just as well call it a day, ‘cause now nothing’s gonna get done.
It’s easy to mock “parliamentary procedure”; it’s often portrayed as a technicality or trick or maneuver, as though using it is somehow underhanded or unfair, but of course it’s precisely the opposite. Without these kinds of detailed and specific rules, stipulated and agreed to, what’s the alternative? That’s the question answered by an army engineer and general who, more than a century ago, laid down the law, or at least the rules by which the law can get made.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School. The idea of a body of people coming together to discuss or make decisions among themselves is ancient, recorded as far back as Thucydides 2500 years ago. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, this became the village “moot” and “witan” which eventually evolved into a “parliament,” from the Latin for “meeting” by the 13th century. The rules for their debates took shape over time, first expressed in written form in the 1560s, and even at that early point they had many aspects we find familiar today: discussing one topic at a time and staying on that point, alternating speeches between opposing points of view, the importance of decorum and not introducing personalities into the discussion, all of which were in place by the early 17th century.
These practices came to the American colonies and formed the structure for rules in colonial assemblies and the Continental Congress, not to mention the US Congress; Thomas Jefferson, presiding over the new Senate as Vice President, wrote its first manual of procedure in 1801, based largely on the English Parliament. As the states formed their post-colonial governments and legislatures, they developed sets of rules based also on the English model, though naturally each in their own way.
Enter Henry Martyn Robert, a civic-minded minister’s son who, after a bout of tropical fever, is reassigned by the army in 1863 to Massachusetts and promptly finds himself presiding over a 14- hour meeting on the defense of New Bedford from Confederate attack. He was at a loss, and mortified, because he didn’t know what to do. That embarrassment led to a resolution that he would never be in that situation again, and in typical 19th century American fashion, he set out to do something about it.
He read all the books he could get his hands on for rules for meetings, including Jefferson’s, and discovered there was great disparity in no small part because of variations by state. He started to compile first a basic list, then what he thought would be a slim, 16 page guide that would be of general use, so that people who belonged to multiple groups and societies didn’t have to keep readjusting to new sets of rules. The army transfers him all over the country following the Civil War until he lands in Milwaukee one frigid winter, waiting for the ice to melt, and got to work.
For a book that’s been around for over a century, now in an eleventh revised edition, and has entered the lexicon, it’s odd to think that, at first, he couldn’t get it published. With no apparent interest, he paid for the printing of 4,000 copies, 1,000 of which he sent to educators, legislators and parliamentarians nationwide. He sold out within months, and a second edition was out almost immediately. That first edition is now worth about $2,000, and much of its basic structure and even language remains in Robert’s today.
Its intent was to free groups from confusion and dispute over rules so they could get on with conducting the business at hand—that’s great, but, wow, it’s now over 700 pages of very precise, might one even say persnickety, language about often arcane, exotic and rare situations, such as whether or not the motion to reconsider extending the limits of debate needs a second. I have to tell you, this stuff is not for the faint of heart; there are other, simpler, sets of rules for smaller groups, though of course nothing so comprehensive, influential or recognized.
The truly committed professional can even receive certification from the National Association of Parliamentarians—and pause with me for a second to imagine what their meetings must be like.
Robert’s personal legacy is in the book itself and the family business that keeps it going to this day. After his death, his only son, Henry Jr. took it on under a trusteeship, followed by Junior’s widow Sarah, and then her son, Henry III, who is still credited, along with a number of others, on the Eleventh Edition. For Henry, Sr., I could find only a couple of minor biographies and a master’s thesis about his life; even his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery makes no mention of his parliamentary work and contributions. His military engineering career was also quite distinguished, and he worked on major projects from the Puget Sound to Long Island to the Mississippi River, rising eventually to brigadier general and US Army Chief of Engineers, a position he held, apparently, for exactly 3 days, before retiring in 1901.
One of Robert’s better-known quotes goes like this: “The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win...gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal.” An appealing, if quaint, notion in an increasingly partisan, polarized world.
Donadio, R. (2007, May 20). Point of Order. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/books/review/Donadio-t.html
Henry Martyn Robert (1837 - 1923) - Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi- bin/fg.cgi?page=dfl&GRid=2119
National Association of Parliamentarians -- Parliamentary Procedure. http://parliamentarians.org/index.php
Robert, H. M., & Robert, S. C. (2011). Robert’s rules of order newly revised. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.