Robert's rules

ON this day in 1837 an American success story was born. Henry Martyn Robert was an unlikely candidate for historical significance; his birth in Robertsville, S.C., was undistinguished by his family's circumstances. But young Robert had intellectual talents. At age 16 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy, graduating with distinction in mathematics in 1857. Robert's forte was engineering. In fact, his engineering talents were employed throughout the nation: in the Northwest Territory, along the Great Lakes, in the Tennessee River area, Long Island Sound, even in New York Harbor. During the Civil War he supervised defense construction in Washington and Philadelphia.

But like so many other talented Americans, Robert had more than one specialty. During a service tour in New Bedford, Mass., in 1863, he was asked to preside over a meeting. His performance so embarrassed him that he was moved to become a student of parliamentary law. Not surprisingly, he found the field as varied as the strategies used in battle, with the US Senate, for example, adopting one rule for debate and the House, another.

In the midst of his military duties, Robert found time to draw up his own book of parliamentary rules, ``based, in its general principles, upon the rules and practice of Congress, and adapted, in its details, to the use of ordinary societies,'' such as church groups. Skeptical publishers forced him to get his own printer and make monetary concessions for the 4,000 copies that went on sale on Feb. 19, 1876. The book sold out in four months, however, and ``Robert's Rules of Order'' was on its way to becoming an American legend.

Robert's approach illustrated the American genius for practicality. In the words of one biographer, his ``Rules'' ``reduced parliamentary procedure to a harmonious system based on reason and common sense.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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