Back to the Past: Robert’s Rules of Order

My first year at college, back in the day, found me joining a committee called the Concert Committee. Since I had some musical background, I thought this was a good choice for me.

I had no idea what these people were talking about. This committee was in charge of arranging for bands to perform on campus. Not garage bands, not marching bands, but musical groups of the day, like Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Miller Band, the Eagles. This seemed way over my head that a group of college kids would be in charge of entertainment for a university. How would we even know who to contact? How do we know what to say?

The chair of the committee was a guy named John who had the most amazing head of hair, long wavy blondish hair parted in the middle. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and was very intense. Imagine your prototypical 1970’s radical; that might be a photo of John. He was going to do things right.

I think it was probably at the first meeting that it was brought up that we were going to follow Robert’s Rules of Order. I bought a paperback copy at the campus bookstore. I didn’t know who Robert was. I didn’t know that someday through strange twists of time and fate that I would live near his birthplace.

From GenealogyBank, the State newspaper, Columbia, SC, Sunday, May 05, 1985, Page: 223.

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Author of Robert’s Rules

Hundreds of South Carolinians abide by his rules, but not many people except history buffs know that Henry Martyn Robert, author of Robert’s Rules of Order, was a South Carolina native. Even fewer know anything about the man himself.

Anyone who has gaveled a meeting to order knows the value of Robert’s little brown pocket volume of rules. First published more than 100 years ago, it is recognized as America’s highest authority on parliamentary law.

The author fully realized the importance of his project as he labored over it through the years, but little did he know how far-reaching his efforts would be, The publishers, Scott, Foresman and Company of Glenview, Ill., have received orders from Argentina, China, France, India, Japan, Mexico, Syria and South Africa. The publishers also have distribution points in Great Britain, Canada and the Philippines. And the blind have a Braille edition of Robert’s Rules of Order.

To date 3.4 million copies have been printed, the latest edition carrying a 1981 copyright.

Henry Martyn Robert, the man who started this groundswell of interest in parliamentary procedure, was born May 2, 1837, on his grandfather’s flourishing plantation near Robertville, in what is now Jasper County. He was the second of the four children of Dr. Joseph T. Robert and his wife Adeline, “a lady of remarkable intellectual ability,” whose family, the Lawtons, lived on a neighboring plantation.

Six years earlier, Robert’s father had given up a successful medical practice in the Robertville area to enter the Baptist ministry. Dr. Robert’s extensive education incuded a degree from Brown University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa; two years of graduate study at Yale and a medical degree from Charleston Medical College (now the Medical University of South Carolina). Already perhaps one of the best educated ministers in the denomination, Dr. Robert, nevertheless, buckled down to study for a degree in theology from Furman Theological Seminary. There he became known as “a very correct, critical and thorough scholar.”

Dr. Robert was ordained pastor of the Black Swamp Baptist Church in his home community. The beautiful, tall-steepled church, carpeted throughout and boasting an organ, was considered the finest country church in the state. It is easy to imagine baby Henry starting Sunday School here, dressed in the starched white apron and little black hightop button-up shoes of the times, following in the footsteps of his pious ancestors.

Robert’s religious heritage went back several generations. He was the sixth lineal descendant of Pasteur Pierre Robert, who had led a band of brave Huguenots into the New World in 1686 in search of religious peace. Pierre Robert, whose homeland was Switzerland, was the first pastor of the colony which settled in the lush quiet of St. James, Santee. His descendants later moved south and acquired lands close to the Savannah River and founded the village of Robertville.

Dr. Robert’s early schooling was at Robertville Academy, at that time considered one of the best in state. But before young Henry was old enough to start school there, his family moved to Kentucky, where his father had accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church at Covington. Later the family moved to Lebanon, Ohio, where Dr. Robert became pastor of “one of the oldest, wealthiest and most influential churches in the state.”

When Robert was nine years old, in 1846, the family came home again to Robertville. Soon afterward Dr. Robert accepted the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Savannah. As often as possible he accepted invitations to fill the pulpit of his old home church, Black Swamp. Baptist history shows that he baptized young Henry at 13, along with his brother, a year older, while the congregation gathered under a magnificent moss-draped magnolia nearby. This must have been at Black Swamp, though records are incomplete because the church was burned by marauders from Sherman’s army in its march from Savannah to Columbia in early 1865.

After serving the Savannah church a little more than four years, Dr. Robert returned with his family to the North “to further the college education of his children,” three sons and a daughter. He taught at Burlington University in Iowa

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and later became president. After his wife died, he returned South, where his “kin and friends” were.

At 16, Robert entered West Point, graduating with honors four years later. After teaching philosophy at his alma mater for a year, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to the Corps of Engineers. His first assignment was to survey a route in the Pacific Northwest for military purposes.

While going through the Panama Canal to his West Coast duty station, Robert contracted malaria. When his condition worsened the following year, he was called back East and assigned as a defense engineer in Washington. War was imminent — a war that saw Lt. Henry Martyn Robert on the opposite side from his mother’s brother, Gen. Alexander Lawtonn, and many others of his South Carolina kin. Gen. Lawton, also a West Point graduate, served the Confederate as a quarter-master-general.

Robert was on duty at Philadelphia and at New Bedford, Massachusetts, and for 10 years following the war, he headed engineering projects in the Military Division of the Pacific. His work involved coastal fortifications specifically harbors and lighthouses, and he met people from all over the world.

It was while on duty in the San Francisco area that Robert recognized the need for some form of standardized parliamentary procedure, but New Bedford has been the scene, some years earlier, of his “first encounter with the problems of parliamentary law.”

Looking impressive in his officer’s gold-trimmed uniform, Robert had found himself elected spontaneously to take charge of a chaotic town meeting. New Bedford citizens, gathered in a Baptist church, were supposed to be discussing how to protect their harbor against a possible attack from the Confederate Navy, but a shouting match had ensued.

In his later writings, Robert doesn’t tell exactly how he brought the noisy mob to order except to say he “plunged in, trusting to Providence that the assembly would behave itself.” “My embarrassment was supreme” he admitted, vowing he would never again try to preside without knowing how.

This disconcerting incident led him to the project which became a consuming passion the rest of his life.

He immediately set out to find the instruction he needed As the only two known treatises on the subject were unavailable, he had to be content with the meager suggestions offered in the familiar one-volume encyclopedia of the day. He jotted down notes on a scrap of paper which he tucked away in his wallet for an emergency.

Later he located Thomas Jefferson’s rules for Congress, but realized they were much too complicated and undemocratic for the average church meeting or town council. Proving even less practical was Massachusetts legislative clerk Luther E. Cushing’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice.

Robert’s duty in California didn’t leave him much time for delving into his favorite topic, but it was constantly on his mind. Logical engineer that he was, he thought through every conceivable parliamentary question to a strong conclusion, trying to anticipate any problem that might arise along the way. California’s diversified population’s suggestions of “That’s the way we did it back home” gave him much to ponder.

By 1869, Robert had written a practical 15-page manual of basic parliamentary procedure. this he had printed at his own expense for his personal use and for close friends.

It was in California, too, that Robert, ever active in the work of his church, took on a personal home missions project. Seeing the plight of the hundreds of discouraged and destitute Chinese who had looked to America in vain for a better life, he found a special Chinese Rescue Mission.

In 1873, he was assigned to the Great Lakes area, where he spent 10 years. There in the cold winters when darkness came early, he at last found time for writing, and his real book of rules began to develop.

By late spring of 1874, more than a dozen years after Robert’s interest in parliamentary law had been kindled and after much writing and revising, he was ready to go to press, but he couldn’t find a publisher. D. Appleton and Company of New York, for example, turned him down in one polite sentence.

Undaunted, Robert decided to pay for printing the book himself. Working with two Milwaukee printing partners, Burdik and Armitage, he selected top quality paper and even paid for new type faces. After months of painstaking indexing, cross-referencing and proofreading every single line himself, Robert rushed home, finished sheets in hand, to share his triumph with his devoted wife Helen, who had encourage him through the years.

Robert shared the outcome of this moment in a letter to a friend years later. It was Helen, he admitted, who suggested a major change in the book after the type had all been set: Why not add examples of exactly how the rules would work? This would make it easier to understand. So back to his writing desk he went.

Next came a search for a publisher to bind the printed pages for 4,000 books, because Robert recognized that he needed a well-known name for promotion if his book were to reach the public. His approach to Chicago publishers S. C. Griggs and Company ended with a response as cold as the February day: He was an unknown author who had written about an unpopular subject, and what could an Army officer possibly know about parliamentary law?

At this, the young major firmly set his jaw and offered the publishers a contract they couldn’t turn down. He would pay for binding the books, an he himself would conduct a promotion campaign with the first thousand copies, sending samples with a questionnaire to legal authorities, legislators, colleges and presidents of church groups and fraternal organizations. This he did, and the response was overwhelming.

On February 19, 1876, Robert’s little nook was offered to the public, and orders could not be filled fast enough. In less than three months the presses has to start rolling again. Robert’s Rules of Order, its title chosen by the publisher, was on its way. Scott, Foresman and Company acquired publication rights shortly thereafter.

Grateful officers of governing bodies and fraternal orders from Maine to California wrote to Robert congratulating him. College presidents and state governors commended him. Even the United Presbyterian Church adopted his rules as standard authority, a form still followed in the Presbyterian Book of Order today.

Besides being practical, Robert’s rule book had the unselfish theme of fairness he so often quoted: “The will of the assembly.” The author held from the beginning that in as assembly (1) the majority must rule; (2) the minority must be heard; (3) the rights of the individuals must be guarded and (4) just and courtesy must prevail.

Robert, who earned the rank of brigadier general, retired from the Army on his birthday in 1901. He spent the rest of his life writing new rules and revising old ones, answering questions on points of order and accepting suggestions, which he incorporated in the later editions of his book. since his death, his family has kept up the revisions and published new editions at the same time retaining his basic principles and the same pocket-sized format he chose so long ago. Only the color has changed. the little brown book is now also available in maroon.

Robert was married twice. Some years after Helen’s death, he married Isabel Hoagland, who also aided him tremendously in his work. He and Helen were the parents of four children. Grandchildren still survive. He died at Oswego, N.Y., May 11, 1923, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery.
Robert was described as deeply religious genial, friendly, gracious, quiet, intelligent and efficient. Perhaps a description written of his father more than 50 years earlier would also be fitting: “He combined the courteousness of a Southern gentleman with the indomitable energy of a Yankee.”

Ms. Law is on the journalism faculty of the University of South Carolina-Aiken.

Good night, Mr. Robert. We’re thinking of you.

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4 Responses to “Back to the Past: Robert’s Rules of Order”

  1. Dawn Stanford Says:

    That was fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ruth Rawls Says:

    So we’re trying to sort something out. The article says that he was born on his grandfather’s plantation. Which grandfather?

    Like

  3. sharon Says:

    Very interesting, Ruth. Thank you for all these great articles.

    Liked by 1 person

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