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

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D.C. tour guide Tim Krepp says Henry Martyn Robert forever changed the way we moderate group discussions and meetings.
Rebecca Sheir
D.C. tour guide Tim Krepp says Henry Martyn Robert forever changed the way we moderate group discussions and meetings.

This fall brings the 11th edition of Robert's Rules of Order: the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure in the United States.

Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert, an Army engineering officer, wrote the original rules after his lackluster performance moderating a church meeting in the late 19th century. After that embarrassing incident, he vowed he'd never attend another meeting until he knew something of parliamentary law.

But as he traveled the country, he found virtual parliamentary anarchy, with vastly differing ideas of correct procedure. Tim Krepp, a local tour guide/historian and author of the blog, DC Like a Local, says the rules were Robert's attempt to bring order out of chaos - especially in the post-Civil War era, where mobility was becoming more common, and people from one state would often travel to another, and attend meetings there.

"He starts a thought in his mind of there needs to be a form, a way of doing this," Krepp says. "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 you go to Texas, or you go to Kansas, you'll have the same set of basic debate rules."

Though Robert modeled his rules on those used by the U.S. House of Representatives, he never intended them to be used in national and state legislatures. Rather, as Krepp points out, "It's meant to be used for you and me when we have a community meeting."

Krepp thinks it's interesting -- and fitting -- that Robert was an engineer, rather than a lawyer or politician.

"He has a different perspective," Krepp says, "He breaks [parliamentary procedure] down to its lowest possible units and rebuilds it as a perfect system in his mind."

And that system stays with us today, bringing order to potential chaos across the country. The 11th edition was published this September by Da Capo Press, and co-authored by several of Robert's descendants, including his grandson, Henry M. Robert III.

[Music: "Breaking All The Rules" by Peter Frampton from Breaking All The Rules]


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