Presented September 21, 2004 to the convention
(Reprinted, with permission, from Fourth Quarter 2003
Madam President; Fellow Members of NAP:
Our President has graciously asked me to speak for a few minutes, at this opening meeting of the 34th Biennial Convention of the National Association of Parliamentarians, about my family's legacy to the field of parliamentary law.
That legacy was of course left to us by my grandfather, General Henry Martyn Robert, whose name I am privileged to share. Although I never knew my grandfather personally, I have very vivid recollections of how his son and namesake, my father, would speak of him to me from the time I was a little boy. It is, perhaps, natural for a young boy to look up to his father as an almost all-powerful and all-knowing being. Certainly that was the way I thought of my father. However, both my father and my mother spoke of my grandfather in such terms that, great as was my admiration for my own father, it paled in comparison to the respect, bordering on awe, I was brought up to have for my grandfather.
Over my own lifetime, as I have studied General Robert's life and works, that respect, while it has matured, has not diminished; it has increased. Indeed, it has come into clearer focus from my conversations with Bill Reed, the President's husband, who is in the course of preparing a scholarly biography of my grandfather. There is much to admire in his relations with his family, his care of his friends, his church activity, his lifelong devotion to great literature, and his quite remarkable career as a civil engineer in the Army and after his retirement from the service. What is of most interest to this gathering, however, is naturally what he has left to parliamentary law.
The story of how he came to feel the need for a manual of parliamentary law, and then to write and publish his first edition, has been often told, including in the introduction to Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised. I shall not repeat it here.
In the almost half-century between the first edition's publication and his death, he significantly re-edited and expanded it three times- with the last, the 325-page 1915 Robert's Rules of Order Revised, requiring, he said, more work than the three previous editions combined. He thereafter wrote the 599-page treatise, Parliamentary Law, and a text for classroom teaching, Parliamentary Practice. In all of this, he was greatly influenced by the vast quantity of letters he received from those seeking resolution of parliamentary quandaries not clearly answered in the then-existing work.
With this experience, he fully grasped the need for continuing development of parliamentary law and consequent revision of the parliamentary manual. Accordingly, he looked to my father to carry on the legacy. In a letter to his publisher dated September 17, 1922, he wrote: “After my death I expect my son, Prof. Henry M. Robert, Jr., of the [U.S.] Naval Academy to continue my work. He has delivered lectures on parliamentary law and is now preparing the index to [the book] ‘Parliamentary Law.’ He is enthusiastic about both these books, and I expect him to revise them when, say in 20 years, it may be advisable.”
My father indeed succeeded to the mission of responding to the many questions of parliamentary law that continued to come in after my grandfather's death. He taught courses in the subject and served as parliamentarian, and planned to take on the intended revision following his retirement. Sadly, he died prematurely, in 1937.
Remaining members of the family agreed that my grandfather's second wife, Isabel Robert, and my mother, Sarah Corbin Robert, should be commissioned to continue. Both had assisted my grandfather as he completed his later works on parliamentary law, and my mother had substituted for my father in teaching courses on the subject at Columbia University.
Based on General Robert's marginal notes in his personal copy of the 1915 edition, they produced the 1943, or fifth, edition. They introduced a few clarifying changes of their own for the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition of 1951. It would be 1955 before the family agreed that the major revision General Robert had envisioned for perhaps 1942 should finally be attempted. The resulting seventh edition, Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, would take another fifteen years before coming to fruition in 1970. It was in writing that edition, at first under my mother's tutelage, that I myself took up the family legacy. As you know, we have taken it through three subsequent editions since, with the aid of, eventually, three other parliamentarians.
From almost the beginning, a certain tension has been recognized between the need for a manual that comprehensively provides definitive answers to the many parliamentary questions that arise in practice, on one hand, and the desirability of a work that is easily accessible and quickly understandable, on the other.
It will be remembered that my grandmother, General Robert's first wife, influenced him to add a second part to the material he originally composed for the first edition, especially for the benefit of persons with no experience in meetings. This second part, titled “The Organization and Conduct of Business,” he separately published as the Parliamentary Guide. So at the very beginning of the enterprise, there was a recognition of the potentially divergent needs: a quick study for the beginner, and a more comprehensive manual for reference. Although the Parliamentary Guide was offered for only 25 cents, in comparison to the 75 cents for the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, the Guide did not sell well and was soon discontinued. The manual itself, rapidly becoming known by the short title, Robert's Rules of Order, that the publisher had placed on the cover, was then only 192 pages long. Very possibly its length was not so daunting as to drive anyone to the less comprehensive volume.
Primarily in light of the many questions my grandfather received over the years, Robert's Rules of Order expanded to 218 pages in 1893 and to 325 when issued as Robert's Rules of Order Revised in 1915. Even at that length, it did not answer all the questions -- and, to keep it short, he had been obliged to adopt a compressed style that, while suited to a reference work, impaired easy understanding of important aspects. These limitations induced him to write, as I have recounted, the 599-page Parliamentary Law. When we wrote Newly Revised, we included a great deal of the material from that work, bringing the pages to 594. Subsequent editions have brought it up to 704 pages. By now, we must recognize, the length is likely to be daunting to the beginner or casual reader.
I have noted that my grandfather originally sought to meet such a reader's needs by issuing the less-than-fully-successful Parliamentary Guide. After completing Rules of Order Revised and while at work on Parliamentary Law, he again tried to meet these needs by writing Parliamentary Practice. It is instructive to quote from its preface: “The object of [Rules of Order Revised] being to furnish a set of rules of order to be adopted by societies, it is necessary that the rules should be exhaustive .... If the book were adapted to the needs of the novice it would not be suitable for adoption as the rules of order of a society. ... The author decided to write a book for beginners, whether they are simply readers or students in classes.”
Thus, a very important part of my grandfather's -- and the family's -- legacy has been striving to fulfill his aim that “[s]ome knowledge of parliamentary law may be justly regarded as a necessary part of the education of every man and woman, every boy and girl.”
It is no secret to members of this assembly that for the past half-century there has been controversy among parliamentarians concerning the length of Robert's Rules in its various editions and the complexity of the rules it describes. Some have blamed these, at least in part, for what has been called a widespread failure of knowledge and observance of the rules in many assemblies.
As you know, efforts have been made to put forth competing parliamentary authorities promoted as simpler and shorter substitutes for Robert's. We in the Robert family and authorship have pointed out an inherent problem with this approach: to the extent the rules themselves are “simplified” they will fail to provide clear answers to many parliamentary situations that arise in practice.
As my grandfather noted, “Robert's Rules of Order was published ... with a view to furnishing a set of rules of order that any assembly might adopt, and thus avoid waste of time in constant discussion of what is parliamentary law in particular cases.” In an effort to make parliamentary procedure more widely accessible, known, and employed, the approach of “simplification” unfortunately resurrects the very problem that Robert's Rules first emerged to solve. When there are large gaps in the rules, one or more of three major problems occur: much time is spent in debating what the rules are or should be, the chair unilaterally imposes a result, or the majority imposes a result that frequently disregards the rights of the minority.
When virtually everyone agrees, an assembly may be able to get by without resort to elaborate rules. When there is serious division, however, it is in human nature that each side will attempt to construe any ambiguity in the rules in such a way as to foster its substantive objectives. The ideal is that the rules applicable to a contentious subject are so clear that the contending sides cannot plausibly differently interpret them to their own advantage. Only then does parliamentary law fully play its role as the neutral arbiter that channels disputes into productive debate over substance, instead of time-wasting and manipulative maneuvering over procedure.
Are we condemned to choosing between simple and understandable rules that leave many questions unanswered, on the one hand, or rules comprehensive enough to answer most questions but so complex and daunting that few will tackle them, on the other? Must the Robert legacy be, to this extent, unfulfilled?
At the last NAP Convention I announced that we thought we had found a solution to this dilemma. It was to compose a brief, accessible work, not as a substitute for Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, but as an introduction to it. It would be so carefully cross-referenced and otherwise tied to the larger book that readers of the shorter one would be guided to resort to RONR when needing answers to any of the many questions the brief book would not address.
I said then, “necessary as the full content of RONR is, we think it must be admitted that, 80% or more of the time, meetings can get by with 20% or less of what is in the book. ... There is reason to believe that very many persons who could greatly profit from learning merely the basics of parliamentary procedure shy away from attempting to do so, simply because they see the subject as a great body of complicated rules which they lack the time, the ability, or the inclination to master. The size of RONR undoubtedly contributes to this impression. “Within the Robert authorship, ownership, and publishing circle, we have talked about the possibility of a shorter publication ancillary to RONR ever since the 1970 edition of that book came out. We have heretofore held off from such a move, however, fearing that organizations might try to adopt the short work as parliamentary authority, thus adding to the confusion and precipitating an erosion of the subject's content.
“We now think we know how to avoid that danger; and it is our perception that the need grows ever more pressing for a brief and simple book that will stand up unmistakably as the “official” RONR derivative work of its kind -- with the same authors, the same copyright ownership, and the same publisher as the parent manual.”
The authorship team has been hard at work in the interval. I am now pleased to be able to announce the ... publication ... of our new product [,] Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief ....
It is divided into six parts, with a total of twenty chapters and some appendices. After an introductory part entitled “Why Have Rules,” Part II, entitled “So You're Going to a Meeting” will cover, in successive chapters: what happens at a meeting, how decisions are made at a meeting through handling motions, debate, elementary amendments, postponing and referring to a committee, and how a group changes its mind. Part III will focus on voting and elections. Part IV is entitled “Bylaws and Other Rules and How to Use Them.” Part V, called “Beyond the Basics,” will include guidance on how to look up the rules in RONR, the answers to frequently asked questions, and a summary of motions. The final part, Part VI, will contain chapters with helpful guidance on the duties of the president or vice-president, secretary, treasurer, board member, committee chairman or member, and convention delegate or alternate. Lastly, appendices, organized for ready reference, will contain a very simplified table of rules relating to motions and wording to be used by the chair and members in the course of a meeting.
In his preface to the 1921 Parliamentary Practice, my grandfather wrote, “Its characteristic feature is the illustration of nearly every point in common parliamentary practice by giving the exact words of both the chairman and the member throughout the procedure.” Guided by this example, RONR In Brief is full of sample dialogues demonstrating how the basic rules are appropriately applied. Every effort has been made to write using a vocabulary and style suitable for those with no background in parliamentary procedure.
We cannot now, of course, know with certainty what the reception of this book will be, or how fully either you, our parliamentary colleagues, or the general public will judge that it has met our objectives. We can only express our hope for its potential.
We dare to hope that it will prove the vehicle for spreading a basic knowledge of parliamentary procedure far beyond its present confines. We dare to hope that it will prove suitable for widespread use in classes at the high school, college, and adult education levels. We dare to hope that it will be attractive to the leadership of many organizations to obtain copies at discount prices for their general membership, in the expectation that it will lead to a significant improvement in the smooth, efficient, and fair conduct of their meetings. We dare to hope that city and county councils, and the vast array of boards and commissions associated with government, will find it an essential resource for their members. We dare to hope that corporate board members facing an airplane trip will think it valuable to pick up in the airport for a quick read while inflight.
We believe that the brief book has been written carefully enough that its readers will not be tempted wrongly to treat it as somehow a substitute for RONR as a parliamentary authority, but rather will be led to resort to that manual as the fundamental rulebook and source of necessary further information. So we dare to hope that RONR In Brief will prove a worthy tool for dramatically increasing the accessibility of parliamentary law to the general public without sacrificing, but rather enhancing, resort to the detailed rules in RONR in order to answer, with as little ambiguity as possible, whatever procedural questions may arise.
In the words of my grandfather, “It is difficult to find another branch of knowledge where a small amount of study produces such great results in increased efficiency in a country where the people rule, as in parliamentary law.” He and the family members who have followed in his footsteps have left the legacy of bringing order to millions of meetings. With the impending publication of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief, we hope and trust that we will take another significant stride in our continuing effort to fulfill that noble legacy.
NOTE: While there are many books available with “Robert's Rules” in the title, be aware that only the 2011 editions of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, published by Da Capo Press, are the current, official versions.
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