Henry M. Robert: Parliamentary Procedure Pioneer

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Did you know that April is Parliamentary Law Month? The National Association of Parliamentarians has chosen April for this distinction because April is the birth month of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first American manual of parliamentary procedure in 1801. However, most of us are more familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order. Dr. Connors from the University of Idaho is the guest columnist for this Footnote and will educate us about General Roberts and when the FFA adopted Robert’s Rules. You might be surprised.

Henry M. Robert: Parliamentary Procedure Pioneer
James J. Connors

Imagine the excitement. Thousands of individuals waiting anxiously for something they have anticipated for over 10 years. What could it be, another Star Wars movie, or another Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling? No, it was the publication of the 12th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. It is the latest edition of the parliamentary authority first published by Henry M. Robert in 1876.  Why should agricultural education professionals be interested in this momentous occasion?

Henry M. Robert was a leading military official in the mid-19th century. As a young army engineer, he was asked to chair a community meeting of citizens in New Bedford, MA in 1863.  Despite having no training in parliamentary procedure, he chaired the meeting. After finding the existing manuals of parliamentary procedure lacking in detail, he decided to write his own manual of parliamentary procedure. In 1876, Robert published the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies.

Figure 1. General Henry M. Robert, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Figure 2. Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies (1876)

Over the years, Robert continued to edit and add new rules to his manual. He also wrote two additional books about parliamentary procedure:

  • Parliamentary Practice: An introduction to parliamentary law (Robert, 1921)
  • Parliamentary Law (Robert, 1923)

After three editions of the pocket manual had been published and more than half a million copies had sold, Robert rewrote about 75% of the book and published Robert’s Rules of Order Revised in 1915.

Robert had retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1901 as Brigadier-General. He continued to write and revised his rules of order up until the time of his death in 1923.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. His grave lies on a quiet hillside not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Robert lies among the thousands of military heroes, who like himself, helped build this great country.  His simple grave lies in Section 3, Grave 3945, just north of Miles Drive.

Figure 3. Henry M. Robert Grave – Arlington National Cemetery (Section 3, Grave 3945)

From the very beginning of the Future Farmers of America in 1928, members have been taught how to use parliamentary procedure to run chapter meetings, committees, and community organizations. In 1952, Hankins wrote that, “My favorite method of developing leadership in vocational agriculture students is through teaching parliamentary procedure” (p. 132). Ziegler (1955) stated that “Future Farmers are putting on parliamentary drills or demonstrations for keenly interested members of Granges, Farm Bureaus, P.T.A., and other groups (p. 134).

Ironically, the new Future Farmers of America organization did not adopt Robert’s Rules of Order Revised as its parliamentary authority for running meetings. Newly elected National FFA officers were provided copies of Howe’s Handbook of Parliamentary Usage (1932) and instructed to start studying it in preparation for the Sixth National Convention (Future Farmers of America, 1932).

Figure 4. Howe’s Handbook of Parliamentary Usage (6th ed., 1932)

Most teachers and researchers agreed there was a significant benefit to teaching parliamentary procedure to agricultural education students and FFA members. However, there were some individuals who warned about some negative aspects to focusing on parliamentary procedure. In 1964, Carozier conducted research on parliamentary procedure instruction. He concluded that: “Few would question the fact that former FFA members usually know parliamentary procedure better than most other members of groups. Through the use of their knowledge of parliamentary procedure, they are often virtually able to control meetings” (p. 88).

In 2000, the FFA organization was 78 years old. However, in a review of the FFA Constitution and Bylaws it was determined that neither document listed the parliamentary authority that the FFA organization followed. A proposed Constitutional amendment was drafted, submitted to the National FFA Board of Directors, and ultimately approved by the delegates at the 2001 National FFA Convention. The FFA Constitution now contains Article XVI. Parliamentary Authority that lists the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised as the organization’s adopted manual of procedure.

Adopting Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR) as a parliamentary authority took on new significance in 2020.  Most chapters, state associations, and even the national FFA never considered having to hold business meetings virtually using computer platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The new 12th edition of RONR that was published in September 2020 includes new sections that describe proper rules for holding virtual meetings for organizations.  Many state associations are now revising their governing documents to authorize this new way of meeting and conducting official FFA business.

Figure 5. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th ed., 2020)

 

Parliamentary procedure and conduct of chapter meetings leadership development events are now held in every state. Thousands of FFA members have learned to recite the FFA opening and closing ceremonies and conduct business using proper parliamentary procedure. Former FFA members have gone on to use their parliamentary procedure knowledge as local, county, and state government officials, state legislators, U.S. Representatives and Senators, and even President of the United States.

Thousands of FFA members, officers, and adult leaders have studied parliamentary procedure and used it to run efficient and orderly FFA meetings. However, unless you are a dedicated student of parliamentary procedure you probably never knew anything about the author, Henry M. Robert.  Robert was a military officer and trained engineer. When called upon to lead a community group he used his engineering knowledge and strict adherence to rules to write his own manual of parliamentary procedures. Throughout his entire life, Robert continued to revise and improve his rules of order for deliberative assemblies.

The legacy of Henry M. Robert continues with the publication of the 12th edition. The Robert’s family is still involved in the development of the rules and publication of the book. The current authorship team works under the auspices of the Robert’s Rules Association. The association maintains a newly-revised webpage with information about the book, parliamentary procedure, and a forum to answer puzzling parliamentary procedure dilemmas that organizations may face. The website can be found at: https://robertsrules.com/

Agricultural Education students and FFA members can use their knowledge of parliamentary procedure throughout their entire lives. There are numerous opportunities to continue to study parliamentary procedure after high school. There are two professional parliamentary procedure organizations that offer workshops, conventions, publications, and credentialing opportunities to become professional parliamentarians.  These include:

Agricultural education professionals can continue to study and use your knowledge of parliamentary procedure to help civic clubs, community organizations, or professional societies. So, as you are participating in, or leading your next meeting, you have Brigadier-General Henry M. Robert to thank for writing his famous Robert’s Rules of Order.

[Curator’s Note: As an FFA member in Texas my introduction to parliamentary procedure was through Jarrell D. Gray’s Parliamentary Guide for FFA. Gray was a professor at East Texas State and later at Texas A&M. The most current guidelines for the Chapter Conducting contest in Texas uses this book. It was first published in 1961 and the 4th edition was published in 2016.

Interstate Publishers also sold a parliamentary procedure handbook titled “The ‘HOW’ in Parliamentary Procedure.” The 6th edition was published in 2000. It is on the list of references for the North Carolina Ritual and Parliamentary Procedure Leadership Event.]

References:

Adamski, B. K. (2005, March). Robert rules: The great accomplishments of a remarkable man. Toastmaster, 71(3), 8-12.

Connors, J. (2004).  A history of leadership development through parliamentary procedure instruction and events in agricultural education and FFA.  Journal of Agricultural Education, 45(2), p. 52-61.  DOI: 10.5032/jae.2004.02052.

Connors, J. (2016, Summer). My search for Robert. National Parliamentarian, 77(4), 18-21.

O’Brien, J. F. (2019). Henry M Robert: Writer of the Rules, An American Hero. Independence, MO: National Association of Parliamentarians.

Smedley, R. C. (1955). The great peacemaker. Los Angeles: Borden Publishing Company.

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