Henry Martyn Robert

views updated Jun 08 2018

Henry Martyn Robert

Anyone who has ever attended a civic or organizational business meeting has probably seen Robert's Rules of Order in action. But what few people know is that General Henry Martyn Robert (1837-1923) had a long and varied career, one that had an impact on the landscape of the United States, as well as on how its decisions are made.

Robert was born on May 2, 1837 on his grandfather's plantation near Robertville, South Carolina. His father was the Reverend Joseph Thomas Robert, a Baptist minister and teacher. Reverend Robert did not support slavery, and by the time his son was 16, the family had moved to Ohio. It was from Ohio that Robert received his appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point when he was 16.

In 1857, Robert graduated from the Military Academy with honors. Although he returned to teach at the academy the following year, he was given his first significant engineering assignment in August of 1859.

Robert's Redoubt

U.S. Army troops were stationed on San Juan Island, in northern Puget Sound, 80 miles north of Seattle, Washington. There had long been controversy over the boundary of the United States and Canada, then a British colony. In the summer of 1859, the conflict came to a head in what has come to be known as the "Pig War," when an American settler shot and killed a pig that had repeatedly eaten his crops. The pig was owned by Canada's powerful Hudson's Bay Company, and the British Army was soon involved. When three British warships suddenly appeared off San Juan Island, the local commander wrote for help.

Help was sent in the form of a ten-man detachment from the Army Corps of Engineers, commanded by now Second Lieutenant Robert. Robert had come to Washington to help in the federal campaign against the aboriginal people. He had traveled to the West in the most popular method of the time, sailing to Panama, crossing that country on land, then sailing north back to the United States. During this journey, Robert contracted malaria.

Once at San Juan Island, Robert and his engineers began building a dirt fort, digging trenches and piling the dirt to create a barrier. The redoubt was based on designs Robert had studied at West Point. It was planned to feature eight heavy guns taken from the battleship U.S.S. Massachusetts to be used against British ships. After only one gun was in place, did the British realized that the fort was designed well enough to allow a small contingent of men to repel an attack. Negotiations were begun and both sides agreed to reduce their military presence on the island. The work had been physically difficult, done only with pick and shovel, and the redoubt never fired a shot in anger. The fort became known as "Robert's Gopher Hole." If it never knew battle, it certainly succeeded in ending the armed conflict and helping to shape policy.

On Christmas Eve, 1860, Robert married Helen Marie Thresher in Dayton, Ohio. The couple would have five children, four daughters and one son.

When the American Civil War began, Robert chose to remain loyal to the United States. He helped to plan the defenses of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Harbor, and was subsequently promoted to first lieutenant. Because the sometimes-sultry climate of the Middle Atlantic States aggravated his lingering malaria, he was soon transferred to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Introduction to Parliamentary Procedure

It was in New Bedford that Robert had his first exposure to the thing that would bring him fame. Asked to preside over a meeting at his church, he found that he had no idea how to effectively do the job. According to legend, Robert decided that he would not preside at a meeting until he understood parliamentary procedure.

After a short term heading the Department of Practical Engineering in West Point, Robert became the chief engineer for the Military Division in the Pacific in 1867. He was in charge of lighthouse and harbor construction and also ordered to scout Arizona. He was stationed in the then booming town of San Francisco. While there, he was asked to once again take a leadership role, this time at the First Baptist Church of California. He found that as people came from various parts of the country to take part in the boom, they brought with them many ideas of how a meeting should be run, each based on their own experience. It created an atmosphere in which little of the business of the church could be accomplished. Robert had developed some ideas from his own study of parliamentary law, and saw that there was a need for a general reference tool.

He began to seriously research and study parliamentary law. The basic rules of order originated in the early parliaments of England. European settlers brought them to the United States. But they were an oral tradition. As people moved across the U.S., the rules were adapted and evolved. Robert researched both the historical and most widely adopted current rules to determine a set procedure that would be applicable to modern-day meetings. His research resulted in the publication of a 15-page pamphlet in 1869. It was meant for himself and his friends, so that the business of the church could be better handled.

The Rules of Order were Created

In 1873, Robert was assigned to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, supervising construction of lighthouses on Lake Michigan and river and harbor improvements. During the severe winter of 1873-74, he found himself with time on his hands, unable to perform any duties due to the weather. He decided to use this time to collect all he had researched on parliamentary procedure and write the first manuscript of what would become Robert's Rules of Order . It was the most complete guide to be published at the time. On the suggestion of his wife, who felt that the Rules of Order might be too complex for people who had no parliamentary experience, Robert added two sections. The first dealt with practical matters such as the scheduling of meetings and the preparation of agendas. The second section had to do with the legal rights of assemblies, and the correct procedures for regulating behavior at meetings.

Once he had completed the manuscript in 1875, Robert, following a convention of many writers of the day, paid to have 4,000 unbound copies of Rules of Order typeset and printed by Burdick and Armitage, printers in Milwaukee. In early 1876, Robert found a publisher to handle the sales and distribution of the book. The S.C. Griggs Company in Chicago agreed to publish the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies. The title pages of the first edition were reprinted to include the publisher and copyright date as 1876.

The book was officially published in February 1876. One thousand copies of the first edition were given free to educators, civic leaders and parliamentarians across the United States. That act must have helped create the tremendous demand; the remaining 3,000 copies were sold out by May. When he had the original 4,000 copies printed, Robert believed that it was at least four year's supply.

Griggs wanted to reprint the book, but the plates needed to be reset. Robert took advantage to make some changes. The second edition of the Rules of Order was published in July of 1876. It featured 16 additional pages, due to a combination of Robert's changes and the use of a larger typeface. The second edition would see 21 printings by 1892, with more than 140,000 copies printed. In 1881, Robert's The Water-Jet as an Aid to Engineering Construction was published.

Robert in Galveston

The U.S. government was looking for a port in the western Gulf of Mexico at the end of the 1880s. President Grover Cleveland appointed Robert to head a board of engineers to select the best location. Robert felt that the island city of Galveston, Texas was the only choice for a seaport. Congress accepted his proposal, and Robert was given the task of building a deep-sea port at the island. The largest hindrance to navigation at Galveston was a large sandbar. Robert designed a series of jetties that increased the speed of the river water entering the gulf, which eventually forced the sandbar into deeper water. The work lasted until 1895, during which Robert was promoted to the rank of colonel.

While working in Galveston, Robert prepared a third edition of Robert's Rules of Order, which was published in 1893. After his wife Helen died in 1895, Robert continued his career as a consulting engineer. His experiences in Galveston led him to jobs at a number of other Texas harbors and riverfronts.

The spring of 1901 was a very eventful one for Robert. On April 30, President William McKinley rewarded him for his 44 years of loyal and productive service, by promoting him to the rank of brigadier general, and appointing him chief of the Corps of Engineers. Though it surely added to his pension, the act must have been mainly a symbolic one, for Robert retired from the Army just two days later, on May 2. He was 64 years old.

Civilian Life

Less than one week later, on May 8, Robert embarked on the next phase of his life by marrying Isabel Livingstone Hoagland in Owego, New York. The newlyweds settled in Owego, in central New York State, and Robert began his career as an engineering consultant. He also began to revise his Rules of Order.

One of his first civilian engineering jobs again involved the city of Galveston. In 1900, the city was devastated by a hurricane with storm tides that almost destroyed the city. Robert was invited to help devise some form of protection against future storms. From 1901 to 1904 he designed and supervised the building of a large seawall. The resulting construction, made of concrete, was 17 feet high, seven miles long, and wide enough to allow a roadway on its top. It protected the city from two later storms, in 1909 and 1915. Robert inspected the seawall after both storms and reported any damage to city leaders. He also worked on designs for a highway and a railway bridge linking Galveston to the mainland.

In 1915, Robert's Rules of Order, Revised, featuring new material and a new copyright was published. Parliamentary Practice: An Introduction to Parliamentary Law was published in 1921. This was followed in 1923 by Parliamentary Law.

On May 11, 1923, Henry Martyn Robert died in Hornell, New York. He was 86. Services were held at Owego, New York. Robert is buried in Section Three of Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, DC. Parliamentary procedure has become a family business. Robert's daughter and grandson have both created revised editions of the Rules of Order.

Many of the engineering improvements Robert designed still stand as a testament to his abilities. The Sea Wall at Galveston is that city's most distinctive feature, and has been called the premiere waterfront boulevard in the United States. Robert is known around the world for bringing order to civic and organizational meetings. If a vote were to be held to declare Henry Martyn Robert the person with the most influence on meetings, without a doubt, the motion would be carried.


Petroski, Henry, Remaking the World, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.


"Chronology of the Life of Gen. Henry Martyn Robert," http://www.paliamentarians.org (February 4, 2001).

"San Juan Island National Historical Park," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/ (February 4, 2001).

"In 1876 You Could Buy a Robert's First Edition for 75 Cents,"(From the 4th Quarter 1999 issue of the National Parliamentarian ) http://www.newkent.net/