B-Sides: Reading, Race, and “Robert’s Rules of Order”

The famous guidebook of rules, motions, and meetings has a darker history than you might think.

The Previous Question does not refer, as its name would imply, to the previous question.

—Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised (1915)


Does anyone read Robert’s Rules of Order? We often threaten to consult it, but it’s hard to imagine someone really reading any of the many versions of Henry Robert’s 1876 text. Even in Robert’s own early editions, the guidance on secondary, subsidiary, incidental, privileged, unclassified, and other motions was presented in a pointedly systematic form that invited not slow perusal but rather tactical, and sometimes supercilious, consultation. “If only you had looked at page 47 of Robert’s Rules,” we can hear someone saying, “you would have known that a Motion to Suppress the Question requires a two-thirds vote. You moron.”

Its talismanic power is such that an effective use of the book might not even require consultation. Sitting down at a committee table and placing an unopened, unread copy where others could see it is a power move all its own: an index of the paradoxically occult sway of ostensibly transparent procedure, a threat and a promise.1 Its potential as both an effective tool and a bespoke weapon has long been a part of the book’s appeal. Arthur T. David, in his 1937 Robert’s Rules Simplified, acknowledges that for some, Robert’s rules look like “a ‘bag of tricks’ with which a few members can run things to suit themselves.”2 In his Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Jon Ericson acknowledges that, for many, “parliamentary procedure is that tricky, pedantic, officious, dull, boring, unfair system that tyrants use to suppress the rights of all us good folk.”3 “Meetings,” says Mary A. De Vries in The New Robert’s Rules of Order, “are one of the few things in life that are pursued relentlessly even though they provoke endless complaints of frustration, stress, wasted hours, and dissatisfaction with the outcome.”4 And Doris P. Zimmerman dedicates her Robert’s Rules in Plain English “to everyone who has served as a member or leader of a group, and who has, at one time or another, felt ignorant, ineffectual, helpless, frustrated, repressed, or just plain bored.”5 Whether as a cudgel wielded by others or as a means of making the best of an essentially bad situation, Robert’s Rules isn’t something that one reads for pleasure or, strictly speaking, something that one really reads at all.

That said, there are ways to read Robert’s Rules. Although the flat, Gideon Bible ubiquity of the book makes it seem inevitable or even natural, its style, its origins, its afterlife, and, indeed, its form are mixed up with the history of democracy in America in unexpectedly deep ways. A closer look at Robert’s Rules allows us to say something about the history of rules and thus the historicity of forms. In his original introduction, Robert made a point of characterizing his rules as a rugged and nervy American alternative to the stately rhythms and conventional forms of English common law. “As a people we have not the respect which the English have for customs and precedents,” he notes approvingly, “and are always ready for such innovations as we think improvements; hence changes have been and are constantly being made in the written rules which our legislative bodies have found best to adopt.” The formal autonomy of Robert’s Rules was thus a way not to reject, but rather to embrace what he understood as the restless, propulsive, and historical character of 19th-century American democracy. Because, as his contemporary Walt Whitman might have put it, an essentially changeable America demanded forms that would be fittest for its days, one had to articulate abstract and limited rules that could, in turn, allow those historically specific and socially productive forms to come into being. The autonomy of the rule as pure form was not a rejection of history but rather a way to manage and to live within history’s erratic midst.

The book’s provenance is, however, both more particular and more fraught than even that. More than an aspirational and abstract index of a Whitmanian democracy-to-come, Robert’s Rules was an especially formal response to the very real complications and specifically American violence of white supremacy, segregated democracy, and civil war.

Developing, deciphering, and wielding a system of semiautonomous rules makes for hard reading, as Robert himself acknowledged in the 1915 Rules of Order Revised. After pages of detailed guidance about how one should use the manual, Robert appends a very brief and gnomic note “to the reader,” implying that somehow “the reader” is someone other and more particular than whomever has been reading Robert’s Rules thus far. “The reader is advised,” he writes, “to read this Manual in the order suggested in the Plan for the study of Parliamentary Law, page 305.” On page 305, one is directed to immediately turn back and read from pages 275 to 292 and then back again from pages 25 to 51, then jump back to page 5 before moving forward to page 20 and then forward again to page 313 and then back to page 134, and so on.

Robert’s discursive zigzagging through 18 distinct lessons would, in theory, allow one to construct a comforting pedagogical alternative to Robert’s Rules, a reader’s Robert’s Rules. The effect is, however, something like the intentionally fractured and disorienting design of Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing. As Lindqvist puts it in the opening section, “How to Read This Book”: “Follow the threads, put together the horrifying puzzle, and, once you have seen my century, build one of your own from other pieces.”6 The narratologist Gérard Genette says that in general, “the narrative text, like every other text, has no other temporality than what it borrows, metonymically, from its own reading.”7 The same might be said about accounts of strategic bombing and parliamentary law. Or, offered as a beginner’s path through the thickets of parliamentary procedure, the strange and jagged reader’s Rules could feel less like a guidebook and more like one of Raymond Queneau’s Oulipian combinatorial experiments—literary works that relied on the systematic adoption of formal constraints to generate new kinds of content. And, indeed, in the same way that Queneau treats the poetic line both as a part of a poem and as something autonomous and thus indefinitely generative in Cent mille milliards de poèmes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), Robert understands the rule of order as something oddly and unexpectedly autonomous. “While it is important that an assembly has good rules,” Robert writes, “it is more important that it be not without some rules to govern its proceedings.”

The distinction here between “good rules” and “some rules” is meaningful. A “good rule” is, one takes it, good because it emerges from and speaks to the common character and experience of a group. An expression of a specific and situated ethos, the “good rule” contributes to an individual’s or a group’s content-rich view of the good life. “Some rules,” on the other hand, are “important” because and only because they are rules. In other words, they serve as practical postulates or procedural fictions without which a deliberative group cannot functionally exist. Something like a “zero phoneme” in Roman Jakobson or “mana” in Claude Lévi-Strauss, the “some rule” is a placeholder, a formalized “significant absence” upon which the coherence of a group or assembly must depend. Where the living stuff of “good rules” might be nice, a present but empty set of “some rules” is, paradoxically, a structural necessity.

Once seen, the vacant and yet necessary aesthetic autonomy of the “some rule” seems to infect the whole of Robert’s Rules. Squint just a little, and the suppositional intensity of some of its relentless, abstract, and wholly imaginary procedural scene setting feels less like practical advice than something from a Talking Heads record: “If he is not very positive, he may say, ‘The ayes seem to have it.’” Or, “a member may say that if the amendment of the amendment is voted down, he will offer such and such an amendment of the amendment.”8 Or, “you may ask yourself, ‘How do I work this?’ … ‘This is not my beautiful house.’” Because, in that case, the “some rule” as opposed to the “good rule” is a form that exists almost apart from its content, it makes a certain if perverse sense that it could be combined and recombined to invent or to discover different and more complex versions of the same text. Imagine, if you dare, a hundred thousand billion committee meetings. Thanks to the combinatorial power of Robert’s Rules, you can! If, however, this begins to get at what’s unexpectedly rich and strange about the form of Robert’s Rules, what about its content, its origins, its meaning? Why, in other words, did it seem self-evident to Robert or anyone else that what America needed in 1876 was a systematic compendium of semiautonomous “some rules” with which “to govern its proceedings”?9

In fact, the apparent abstractions and “some rule” formalisms of Robert’s Rules were not an escape from but rather a barely displaced expression of tensions that defined American life in the immediate wake of the Civil War.

“Robert’s Rules” was an especially formal response to the very real complications and specifically American violence of white supremacy, segregated democracy, and civil war.

Henry Martyn Robert was born in 1837 near Robertville, South Carolina. His father, Joseph Thomas Robert, was a Baptist clergyman and a member of a slave-owning family that made its money growing rice and indigo. Following a late religious awakening, Joseph became increasingly opposed to slavery, a fact that kept him and his wife, Adeline, constantly on the move between South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia. With the onset of the Civil War, domestic tensions between Joseph and Adeline became acute: “when,” write R. Frank Saunders and George Rogers with inadvertent bathos, “the war came … Joseph Robert would experience the nightmare of a personal civil war in his own household.”10 Though Joseph’s opposition to slavery, and thus to the Confederacy, became more and more pronounced, Adeline “retained strong southern sympathies” and, even more, felt distraught at her forced separation from her slaveholding father and brothers. This conflict was made more difficult when her son Henry, who had entered West Point at 16, decided to remain an engineer in the service of the Union Army. “The idea,” she later wrote, “that young Henry and one of my brothers might be brought in actual contact on opposite sides pursued me like a ghost.”11 She tried and failed to convince Henry to switch sides and fight for the Confederacy.

Adeline died soon after the war’s end, and Joseph moved to Augusta and then to Atlanta, Georgia, where he would become the first president of Morehouse College. As Benjamin Brawley notes in his history of Morehouse, the fraught stories of the Roberts père et fils came together “during the year 1877–8, [when] Major H. M. Robert, of the U.S. Engineer Corps, presented one thousand copies of his Parliamentary Guide to be at the disposal of the President for the benefit of the Institute.”12

Just as the war’s aftermath led his father to one of America’s first historically Black colleges, so did Henry’s experience of intractable personal and political struggle over the question of slavery feed into his effort, begun in 1863 and first finished in 1876, to imagine rules that might prevent social conflict from sliding into catastrophe. “Where there is radical difference of opinion in an organization, one side must yield,” he wrote in 1923. “The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal.”13 Although abstracted to the point of almost pure form, Robert’s Rules must be seen as a product of the Civil War and of the arguments about slavery that roiled the nation and his own family.

The ties between race and Robert’s Rules returned with a vengeance only a few years later while Henry’s daughter-in-law, Sarah Corbin Robert, was a “trustee” of Robert’s Rules of Order—which she would edit and thoroughly revise in 1970—and the president-general of the ultraconservative Daughters of the American Revolution.14

In January 1939, Charles Cohen, chairman of Howard University’s concert series, contacted the DAR and sought to reserve Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, for an Easter Sunday concert by Marian Anderson. The singer had worked with Toscanini and Sibelius, and performed to great acclaim throughout the US and Europe for over a decade. Referring to a “white artists only” clause that they had inserted into their standard rental contract in 1932, the DAR refused to allow Anderson to perform. Although they claimed that such a clause was common among Washington venues, it was, in fact, “not at all compelled by local custom. The exclusion of black performers was an extreme measure for the city of Washington.”15

Following several protests, which would culminate with Eleanor Roosevelt’s public resignation from and condemnation of the group, Robert “convened the [DAR] Board of Management, persuaded them … that no exception could be made for Anderson as far as the ‘white artists only’ clause was concerned, and won a victory of 39 to 1.” With the committee and its rules behind her, Robert wrote to Anderson in terms that were both morally grotesque and procedurally correct: “The artistic and musical standing of Miss Marian Anderson is not involved in any way. In view of the existence of provisions in prevailing agreements with other organizations and concert bureaus, and the policy which has been adopted in the past, an exception cannot be made in this instance.” She was, she argued, just following the rules.

“In light of the D.A.R.’s history throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s,” writes Allan Keiler, “these explanations on the part of the president-general seem like high comedy.” “Here,” he continues, “was an organization that was portraying itself as helplessly restricted by prevailing policy, swallowed up by social and political forces over which they could hardly be expected to have any control or impact. Yet here was an organization whose leadership had for years circulated a blacklist of all those who opposed the D.A.R.’s views, that had testified before congressional committees in support of anti-liberal legislation, that had summarily expelled members who disagreed openly with D.A.R. policy.” Despite what Robert and the DAR had done with their rules, Anderson did perform in Washington that Easter, singing not in Constitution Hall but rather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 and to millions more over the radio.


B-Sides: Fran Ross’s Oreo

By Michelle Latiolais

The history, the existence, and even—or especially—the distinctive formalism of Robert’s Rules of Order are anything but neutral. Really reading Robert’s Rules allows us to see yet another point where historicism and formalism are not opposed but rather two intertwined strands of any thoroughgoing analysis of politics, ideology, and art. On the one hand, the Rules are a historical artifact, a system that emerged out of a traumatic encounter with the fact of white supremacy and the experience of the Civil War. On the other hand, more generally, because all rules are historical, no rule can ever be neutral or truly autonomous; we need to see even the formal autonomy of the rule qua rule as something real, necessary, and potentially violent.

It is exactly the apparently ahistorical force of a rule’s formalism that lends it the capacity both to support the functioning of groups, assemblies, and other communities and to give cover to resolutely historical abuses of power. While some rules (and “some rules”) are necessary to the structure and coherence of any community or group, the fact that some rules (and “some rules”) are always necessary does not mean that all rules will necessarily be good. icon

  1. Robert makes this in-case-of-emergency-break-glass quality of his book explicit: “A careful study of these tables so as to be able to use them quickly will enable any one in an emergency to ascertain whether a motion is in order, and whether it may be debated, or amended, or reconsidered, or requires a second or a two-thirds vote, or is in order when another member has the floor.” Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised (Scott, Foresman, 1915), p. 20.
  2. Arthur T. Lewis and Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules Simplified (Dover, 2006), p. 1.
  3. Jon Ericson, Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), p. xiii.
  4. Mary A. De Vries, The New Robert’s Rules of Order, 2nd Edition (Signet, 1998), p. 3.
  5. Doris P. Zimmerman, Robert’s Rules in Plain English (HarperCollins, 1997).
  6. Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, translated by Linda Haverty Rugg (The New Press, 2001), p. v.
  7. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 34.
  8. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised, pp. 190, 135.
  9. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised, p. 14.
  10. R. Frank Saunders Jr. and George A. Rogers, “Joseph Thomas Robert and the Wages of Conscience,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1 (2004), p. 10.
  11. Saunders and Rogers, “Wages of Conscience,” 11.
  12. Benjamin Brawley, History of Morehouse College (Morehouse College, 1917), p. 26. I discuss this in more detail and in relation to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in The Electoral Imagination: Literature, Legitimacy, and Other Rigged Systems (Cambridge University Press, 2022), pp. 306–15.
  13. Henry M. Robert, Parliamentary Law (D. Appleton-Century, 1923), p. 4.
  14. Sarah Corbin Robert’s 1970 revised edition of Robert’s Rules trades her father-in-law’s measured but nonetheless Whitmanian reflections on America’s restless break from the staid Englishness of common law for an explicitly racialized (and oddly hobbitty) genealogy of the Rules that sees Robert’s book as the culminating expression of a specifically Anglo-Saxon inheritance:
    “The holding of assemblies of the elders, fighting men, or people of a tribe, community, or city to make decisions or render opinions on important matters is doubtless a custom older than history. According to a widely held view, our own tradition of parliamentary process may be traced to ways of life in Anglo-Saxon tribes before their migration to the island of Britain starting in the fifth century A.D. Among these people on the continent of Europe, the tribe was the largest regularly existing political unit. From analogy with the customs of other Germanic tribes, it is supposed that freemen were accustomed to come together in the “Village-moot” to make “bye-laws” for their village to administer justice. These groups also chose men to represent them at the “Hundred-moot” of the district, which acted as a court of appeal and arbitrated intervillage disputes. Still higher in authority, and similarity constituted, was the “Folk-moot,” which was also the citizen army of the tribe.” Henry M. Robert and Sarah Corbin Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (Scott, Foresman, 1970), p. xxviii.
  15. Allan Keiler, Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (University of Illinois Press, 2002), p. 188.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.   Featured image: Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. Photograph by Robert S. Scurlock / Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Archives Center.