Where Did Robert’s Rules of Order Come From?

Mar 10, 2014

220px-Roberts_Rules_1stOkay, without going into too much detail that I’m not at liberty to discuss, I learned more about the minutiae of Robert’s Rules of Order last week than I ever wanted to know in a lifetime! Sure, I was familiar with Robert’s Rules. I’m pretty sure that anyone who has served on a committee in the English-speaking world knows something about Robert’s Rules. I have always detested them too. So much red tape! So many procedures to follow! They have always made me groan.

This past week, however, I learned firsthand just how brilliant they are. And by brilliant, I mean that they have the ability to stave off utter chaos and to make sense of a senseless situation.

But who was Robert anyhow, and what made him such an expert on rules?

I was surprised to find out that Robert’s Rules weren’t as old as I thought they were. For some reason, I was under the impression that they were created in the 1700s. In fact, the original book Robert’s Rules of Order was published in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert. Robert was an engineer with the U.S. Army. (He retired as a Brigadier General) Yes, leave it to an engineer to come up with a way to make order out of chaos.

As the story goes, in 1863, Robert was asked to lead a public meeting at his church. He knew nothing about how to run a meeting, and as he dreaded, the meeting was a complete disaster and he was deeply embarrassed by the whole thing. Not one to be set back by one experience, he began researching parliamentary procedure in various different places and bodies, looking for what the standard rules of conduct were.

It is perhaps to the advantage of all of history and mankind that as an army officer, Robert was moved frequently from place to place. In the process, he was asked to serve on or head more committees. What he discovered was even more chaos. Different areas of the country had different rules and customs, many of which clashed. He knew that something needed to be done, some kind of clear guidelines needed to be established and disseminated to prevent meetings from falling apart.

House of Rep 1965Robert loosely modeled his Rules on the procedures of the United States House of Representatives of the time. He referred to much of what he wrote about as “common knowledge” or at least common sense, so we can imply that some version of these procedural rules had been in use for some time. The full original title of the first edition of the book was called Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, however the title Robert’s Rules of Order was printed on the cover.

Since that first printing in February of 1876, there have been eleven editions of Robert’s Rules. The final edition penned by Robert himself was published in 1915 under the name Robert’s Rules of Order Revised. In 1970, the seventh edition was drastically revised and published under the title Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. Nowadays, this is abbreviated as RONR.

Here’s the interesting catch with the current eleventh edition of RONR, published in 2011. A note at the beginning states that this version supersedes all other versions of the Rules, unless an organization explicitly states that they are working off of an earlier edition. Why is this significant? Because the current edition specifies protocol for 21st century type meetings, like videoconferences and email. So there very well could be entities out there not acting in accordance with RONR whose by-laws state that their meetings and business should be run according to the rules.

Pretty neat, eh? Or maybe I’m just a giant nerd like that. It makes me want to run out and buy the eleventh edition so I can make sure all of those things I think are being done right in the many organizations I belong to that use the rules are actually doing things right.

And after last week, I have a whole new appreciation for Robert and everything that he did to organize the whirlwind of differing opinions in an organization!

For more information, you can visit the official Robert’s Rules of Order website!

Comments (3)

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  1. Jaye Garland

    Merry, from personal experience, I know of which you speak. Been there, done that, etc. I’ve got a pretty good idea about what was going on ‘last week’, and just wanted to say Thank You for digging in and squaring things away. Here’s hoping for smooth sailing! AND, I didn’t know about RONR, so thanks for that. LOVE all your posts. I’m a fan. 🙂

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  2. philippeg30

    Hi Merry,
    Very good account of General Robert’s experience. Indeed the writing of Robert’s Rules is not that old, in fact his own grand son Henry M. Robert III is part of the revision committee.
    For your comment about the red tape however, it is a common yet mislead impression, probably influenced by someone who glanced at the book and started to apply its rules literally. Check out this post about this http://philippeg30.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/the-strict-enforcement-of-the-rules/
    There are actually very few rules in RONR that shouldn’t be bent, and those are usually obvious.
    Thanks,
    Philippe

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