Leadership Notes #30 – Gen. Henry Roberts and his Rules

(This series of “notes” first appeared in the YahooGroup “VenturingList” and are written by Michael Brown. I thought that they were worth sharing with the Commissioner Corps.)

(Originally published 9/23/2011.)

Today (9/23) is a special day. It’s the opening day of the National Association of Parliamentarian’s 38th Biennial Convention, being held in St Petersburg, Florida. It’s also the day that the 11th edition of “Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised” (RONR) is being released. At the opening banquet we will be honoring it, and later during the convention will be a workshop with the authors of this revision.

In learning more about parliamentary procedure, I have found that many people, especially those who know little about it (and usually dislike it, in part due to this ignorance), know little about this man and why he wrote this work and devoted the rest of his life to the study and teaching of parliamentary procedure. Thankfully, Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters International felt he was important enough that he wrote and published a biography of Robert called “The Great Peacemaker” (still in print and for sale from Toastmasters International).

So, a little background on Robert and his Rules. Henry Martyn Robert was a military engineer, serving from the 1850s to the turn of the century. How he got involved in parliamentary procedure is fairly interesting, and it’s something that most of us can relate to. He was asked to chair a church meeting (probably because he was a military officer, others thought he’d do real well). He accepted, thinking it shouldn’t be too hard. He did poorly. Upset by this, it led him to learn more about it. (how many of us have done the same when faced with our lack of knowledge in some area??)

There were a variety of parliamentary authorities (books defining parliamentary procedure) in use at the time, but there was little consistency between them. After studying the situation, he decided to create his own. This was his “Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies” (the original title), which he published at his own expense in 1876. (I guess his publisher didn’t think yet another parliamentary authority would be that much of a seller). “Robert’s Rules of Order” was put on the book as a shortened title, and it stuck. This first printing quickly sold out, which was not expected. They expect the printing to take about two years to sell out. This led to a second edition later that year. A third followed in 1893. As noted, when this work came out, there were other parliamentary authorities. But “Robert’s Rules” was picked up by so many groups that it soon became the de facto standard in the United States. A few of the better other works are still around, but many others have long since disappeared. Even NAP when it founded promoted the work of its founder before switching to using and promoting “Robert’s Rules”.

Robert would soon devote his life to parliamentary procedure. In 1915, the first of 3 editions of “Robert’s Rules of Order Revised” (ROR, which comprise the 4th thru 6th editions overall) came out. Only the 1915 edition (massively re-written and expanded) was written by Robert. He turned over ownership of the work to a family trust, and his son, daughter-in-law and grandson have had a hand in the future editions.

In his later years, Roberts wrote two further works. “Parliamentary Practice” (1921) was written as an introductory work, and has long been out of print. The massive “Parliamentary Law” (1923) was written to be Roberts’ “final word” on the subject, and is still in print.

In 1970, “Roberts’ Rules of Order, Newly Revised”, a massive new edition (5th overall) came out, under the editorship of Sarah Corbin Robert (daughter-in-law) and Henry M. Robert III (grandson). It pulled in a lot of material from “Parliamentary Law”. Since then, there has been a new edition about every 10 years, so here we are in 2011 with the 11th edition.

A few years ago, the Robert’s Trust put out a companion book, “Robert’s Rules of Order, In Brief” as an aid to learning parliamentary procedure, not a replacement for RONR. A new edition of this work is also coming out today.

The Robert’s Rules Association maintains a website here: www.robertsrules.com. Check it out. Among other things, they maintain a question and answer forum.