Robert's Rules: The Man Who Sought Order From Chaos (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Robert's Rules: The Man Who Sought Order From Chaos

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
But we'll start with the kind of moderation you've no doubt experienced if you've been to a meeting for a community group, perhaps, or a club or moving back a few years, if you served on your student council. Whatever the case, at gatherings like these, you get together and ideally you have someone presiding over your meeting, someone making sure things run smoothly and people have their say, in other words, a moderator.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:24
And chances are good, very, very good, that that moderator is following a certain set of procedures as he or she moderates. A certain set of guidelines that wouldn't exist if not for a certain man. A man who happens to be buried in the not often visited section three of Arlington National Cemetery where I recently met with local tour guide and historian Tim Krepp on a somewhat windy afternoon. And who are we looking at here? Whose stone is this?

MR. TIM KREPP

00:00:54
Well, we're at the Brigadier General Henry Robert. Brigadier General Robert has served many, many years in the U.S. Army. He was West Point graduate. He served during the Civil War, served with distinction, all the way through the 1800s. But he's not known for any of that. He's indistinguishable from the other thousands of Brigadier Generals lying around him here. Except that we know his name as the original writer and founder of "Robert's Rules of Order."

SHEIR

00:01:15
How is it that this Brigadier General came to write these rules?

KREPP

00:01:19
Well, I should preface by saying that I'm not an expert on meetings and I avoid them at all costs. So, yes, I can talk in some academic sense but, frankly, if I hear if there's a meeting of Robert's Rules of Order there, I run the opposite direction. I wouldn't be a tour guide if I like meetings. But that being said, Robert's Rules of Order was devised by General Robert to come with a form of parliamentary debate. At one point, if you grew up in a town, you went to that church, you went to that town meeting and you would all have a commonly agreed upon way to handle your community business.

KREPP

00:01:52
But this is a new era. This is a Civil War period. Railroads are coming along, telegraphs. People are starting to be more and more mobile, even the middle class. And we're running into a problem, people are going to town meetings that they're not used to or church meetings they're not used to or community meetings they're not used to and chaos is breaking out. And General Robert or at that time it was Lieutenant Robert, was up in Massachusetts during the Civil War and went to the First Baptist Church there to have a meeting.

KREPP

00:02:14
Now, Lieutenant Robert was an engineer and responsible for building harbor defenses, things along those lines. So he goes up to Massachusetts and he's meeting with a towns folk to discuss the new harbor defenses being built for the Civil War and the meeting just falls apart. It's chaotic, it doesn't go anywhere, he doesn't get his point across. And as he goes that day, he's horribly embarrassed at this and he says -- he felt that he thought he knew how to run a meeting but clearly he didn't.

KREPP

00:02:40
So he starts the thought in his mind of there needs to be a form or a way of doing this. And we have to have more important than just having it written down, it has to be commonly agreed upon by everyone, anywhere you go so if you go to California or if you go to Texas or you go to Kansas, you'll have the same set of basic debate rules when you go there.

KREPP

00:02:59
And about 10 years later he writes a book, the first edition of "Robert's Rules of Order," which in its 11th edition, is still in print today. But it basically goes all through the U.S. House of Representatives rules. It uses that as a template. It's never meant to be used by the government or things like that. It's meant to be used for you and me when we have a community meeting.

SHEIR

00:03:17
I think it's interesting that his rules were not intended to be used in national and state legislatures.

KREPP

00:03:22
Absolutely not. They were not designed for the government and really in many ways, the government had their own parliamentary rules. The House of Representatives rules go back 70 years older than Robert's Rules of Order. And the important thing here, when you look at the tombstone, you'll notice it says Henry Martin Robert, Brigadier General, Chief of Engineers.

KREPP

00:03:39
I think that last line's particularly important here. He's an engineer. Most parliamentarians, most folks that get elected to Congress are not engineers, they're lawyers, they're maybe business men, things like that. He has a different perspective and being an engineer he breaks it down to its lowest possible units and rebuilds it as a perfect system in his mind.

SHEIR

00:03:55
Well, like you said before, I mean, the whole idea was to sort of create order out of chaos.

KREPP

00:03:59
Indeed, yes. And it's very interesting, when he talks about the aftermath of that initial meeting, he's not upset that he's not going to get his way, he's upset that the meeting was just untidy and I think that's the background of someone that's an Army officer, someone that graduated, you know, fourth in his class at West Point, that values order above all else. And this is after the Civil War that he's publishing this. This is a new consumer based age, the rise of the middle class. And you're taking things that used to be for elites, for the Senate or for the House and you're making them available to the common man.

KREPP

00:04:35
And you're seeing that in a lot of -- the importance of a commercial brand is starting to become important now. The idea that you can go to Chicago and get the same canopy's that you can go to in New York and you recognize it by the label on the brand. And that's what Robert is doing here for parliamentary debates. You know, that -- making that universally accepted throughout the United States so that you can walk into, you know, that civic meeting in San Francisco and will understand, more or less, the same way that it's going on.

SHEIR

00:05:00
To follow right along?

KREPP

00:05:01
Right, right, yeah. So that it's, I think, "Robert's Rules of Order" is no different than any other brand that's appearing in the late 1800s, many of which are still with us today.

SHEIR

00:05:10
So Robert lives on?

KREPP

00:05:12
He does, he does, yeah. So he's the Xerox of parliamentary debate. His name is synonymous with the product.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Well, thank you General Robert. And thank you Tim Krepp, it's been a pleasure.

KREPP

00:05:22
As always, as always, thanks for having me out here.

SHEIR

00:05:25
Tim Krepp is a local tour guide and author of the blog "DC Like a Local." The 11th edition of "Robert's Rules of Order" just came out this fall and you can find more information on that on our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.