Thousands of people and organizations 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 have received orders from Argentina, China, France, India, Japan, Mexico, Syria and South Africa and many other places around the world. 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 12.4 million copies have been printed, the latest edition carrying a 2011 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 included 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 high-top 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 French Huguenots into the New World in 1686 in search of religious peace. Pierre Robert, whose native homeland was Switzerland, was the first pastor of the colony which settled in the lush quiet of St. James in Santee Country, South Carolina. 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, later becoming president of that institution. Before departing the south, Dr. Robert, having opposed the enslavement of human beings most of his life, freed all of the enslaved people on his plantation and then sold it. He later said he did so to remove his children from being raised in the “slave culture.”
Dr. Robert’s family remained in the north until shortly after the civil war when his wife died. He then returned South, where his "kin and friends" were. Dr. Robert went on to found the “Atlanta Baptist Seminary” to train freedmen for the minister. This seminary later become Morehouse College, one of the historic black colleges.
At the age of 16 in 1853, Henry Martyn 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 Lawton, and many others of his South Carolina kin. Gen. Lawton, also a West Point graduate, served the Confederate as a quarter-master-general.
During the war, 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 as chairman pro tem 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 to do so. This disconcerting incident led him to the project which became a consuming passion for the rest of his life.
He immediately set out to find the instruction he needed. Since 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 Manual of 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. Copies of this original Rules of Order are available in the NAP Bookshop this week for $5.00 each.
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 founded a special Chinese Rescue Mission known as the “Chinese Sunday School.” Later he founded a home for “wayward women” that saved many from an untimely death.
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 encouraged 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, and 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 book was offered to the public, and orders could not be filled fast enough. In less than three months the presses had 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 as the chief of the Army Corp of Engineers 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 ones.
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 and numerous grandchildren. 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 if applied to him: "He combined the courteousness of a Southern gentleman with the indomitable energy of a Yankee."
You can get a paperback copy of the biography of General Robert from the National Association of Parliamentarians for $24.99 by clicking the link below.
The e-book can be purchased from Amazon.com for $19.99 by clicking on the link following the WHITE SECTION of this page below.
Joseph F. Roberts
Joseph F. O’Brien was Department Chair of the Pennsylvania State University Speech Department from 1946 to 1949. During his time as a rhetoric faculty member, he published articles in several journals, such as the Journal of Speech and Communication Quarterly. He also published a book titled Parliamentary Law for the Layman: Procedures and Strategies for Meetings. Joseph O’Brien continued the tradition of debate and deliberation, expanding the men’s program and reinstating the women’s debate team upon the conclusion of WWII. Before his tenure as department head, he also served as President of the Eastern Communication Association and President of the Pennsylvania Communication Association. Professor O’Brien passed away on February 14, 1958. something interesting about your business here.
Dr. Leonard M. Young
Leonard M. Young became a professional registered parliamentarian in 1983. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Graceland University, a Masters Degree in History and Social Sciences from Central Missouri University, an Educational Specials Degree in School Administration from Central Missouri University and a Doctor of Education Degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Dr. Young has written numerous books for his church Community of Christ and is a well-know teacher and parliamentary educator. He served as President of the National Association of Parliamentarians from 1999-2001.
Attempting to write a comprehensive biography of one of the great men of nineteenth century American history is a daunting task. So daunting, in fact, that several scholars have begun the process of writing about General Henry M. Robert’s life, but none have completed this monumental task.
In the 1950’s Dr. Joseph F. O’Brien, Professor of Public Speaking at Pennsylvania State University, began just such a process. Dr. O’Brien was Chair of the Department of Speech and Communications at Penn State from 1946 to 1949. During his time as a rhetoric faculty member, he published articles in several journals, such as the Journal of Speech and Communication Quarterly. He also published a book titled Parliamentary Law for the Layman: Procedures and Strategies for Meetings. Joseph O’Brien continued the tradition of debate and deliberation, expanding the men’s program and reinstating the women’s debate team upon the conclusion of WWII. Before his tenure as department head, he also served as President of the Eastern Communication Association and President of the Pennsylvania Communication Association.
In his attempt to produce a comprehensive biography of “the General” O’Brien held interviews with Mrs. Henry M. (Isabel Hoagland) Robert and Mrs. Henry M. (Sarah Corbin) Robert, Jr. He was given access to the private papers of General Robert including personal letters, journals and other interesting historical documents. Most of this work was done in 1954-1956.
Suddenly in 1957 Professor O’Brien suffered a massive heart attach and he was never able to complete his project. Sadly, he passed away on February 14, 1958 at the age of 54.
Before he died, Dr. O’Brien gave all of his research notes and partial manuscripts to Otis Castleberry, a close friend. Otis had great interest in parliamentary law and was a long-time member of the National Association of Parliamentarians. After he passed away, their son gifted the research notes for this biography to the National Association of Parliamentarians in 2010 where they lay unopened in boxes until they were opened and catalogued by me in May of 2018.
As a Professional Registered Parliamentarian and a trained historian, I saw these boxes of notes and other materials as a gift from Heaven. Many parliamentarians have long wished that a comprehensive biography of General Robert would be written and available to the public.
Upon discovering this treasure trove of historical research, with the support of NAP President James N. Jones, PRP, I began the process of compiling and organizing the material to see what further work needed to be done to complete the manuscript. Considerable additional research was necessary to fill in the holes, provide citations for all necessary material, and then to complete the partially written manuscript.
Having served my church for ten years as the Director of Field Resources, I had the occasion to do similar things to numerous manuscripts sent to our Office of Congregational Ministries. I found that often it was more difficult to “tune up” a partially completed manuscript and do the necessary resource searches than it would have been to begin the project anew myself. But in the case of Professor O’Brien’s research, many of the sources he quotes were no longer available. Both Isabel Hoagland Robert (the General’s second wife) and Sarah Corbin Robert (the General’s daughter-in-law) had long ago passed away and so their voices would forever remain silent if I simply began new research. I resolved, therefore, to take the partially completed O’Brien manuscript and bring it to completion.
In the process of finishing the manuscript, it was necessary to do considerable editing of language to bring the partial manuscript up to Twenty-First Century standards, both grammatically and culturally. For example, Dr. O’Brien when describing the situation of African Americans as enslaved people on the Robert’s Plantation in South Carolina for many generations, often used the terms “negros,” “mammies” and others that would not be acceptable today. These have been updated to conform to modern sensibilities.
Dr. O’Brien’s style of writing was typical of the 1950’s. He used overly flowery language and makes reference to things that would have been clearly understood by readers in the 1950’s, but which would be lost on casual readers of history in the Twenty-First Century. These have been edited and made more readable for today’s audience. However, I felt it necessary to leave enough of Professor O’Brien’s language and style in place that it could be clearly identified as including his work.
There were numerous chapters that had footnotes indicated, but for which no citations were provided. Fortunately, all of the Professor’s research notes were in the box, not so carefully organized. It was necessary, therefore, to catalog the contents of the box, organize them into the same order in which the chapters of the book were presented and then to do a deep dive into these notes to try to find the missing citations.
Professor O’Brien used the endnote style that was popular in the 1950’s and I have not sought to change his style. He uses terms like “Ibid” and “Op Cit” which a modern writer would more carefully conform to the Chicago Manual of Style or another current manual. I did not attempt to change the style of the Professor’s endnotes, but simply to clean them up and be sure that there was a correct citation for each note.
Finally, when the work was completed, I felt that it was still missing something. So I sent the manuscript to Mr. Thomas Balch, PRP a member of the current Robert’s Rules authorship team. He worked with Mr. Henry M. Robert III to produce the introduction to this manuscript which sets the work in perspective and brings the reader up to date on what has occurred with Robert’s Rules since the death of the General in 1923. I am indebted to Mr. Balch and Mr. Robert for this excellent contribution to the book
The National Association of Parliamentarians has supported the publication of this book in the hope that scholars and researchers into the history of parliamentary law in America will now have access to this important material. Dr. and Mrs. O’Brien had no children and were wise to send this manuscript through Mr. and Mrs. Castleberry and into the possession and ownership of NAP. In this way, the great work of the Professor could be completed and now shared with the world.
--Dr. Leonard M. Young, PRP
All of these items can be purchased in the online store of the National Association of Parliamentarians by going to their website: www.parliamentarians.org
(HARDBACK COPY)Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR) is the most comprehensive and most recognized authority on parliamentary procedure. It is used throughout the world by non-profit and for-profit organizations. RONR provides operational guidelines for members, officers, boards and committees. It answers most parliamentary questions and provides examples of terminology for use by members and officers. RONR provides essential information to ensure that meetings are fair and efficient.
A spiral edition of this class work on parliamentary procedure. It lies flat easily.
A brief edition of the classic work written by the same authorship team as the hardback edition.
The second edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief offers an abbreviated, easy to understand, version of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised written by the same authors. RONR In Brief is useful for a review of parliamentary procedure, sample dialogues of the most frequently used motions, many tips for keeping meetings on schedule, and is helpful as a quick reference. It contains only basic parliamentary information and references page numbers to the 11th edition of RONR for a
The Spiral Bound edition of RONR In Brief is handy because it lays flat easily.
Contact the National Association of Parliamentarians at www.parliamentarians.org or by calling 816-833-3892
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