Engineer, author. Born May 2, 1837, on his grandfather’s plantation near Robertville in Jasper County, Henry Martyn Robert was the second son of the Reverend Joseph Thomas Robert, an educator and Baptist minister, and Adeline Elizabeth Lawton. Members of the Robert family were slave owners; however, a cousin, William Henry Brisbane, opposed slavery, freed his slaves, and moved north where he became an outspoken abolitionist. Robert’s father apparently shared his cousin’s views, and in 1851 he relocated his family to Ohio, where he also spoke out against slavery.
In 1853 Robert was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He graduated fourth in his class in 1857 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant assigned to the Corps of Engineers. After a year of teaching at the academy, he was sent into the field in the fall of 1858 to build fortifications in the Washington Territory and explore westward routes for wagon roads. From 1867 until his retirement in 1901, he crossed the country, working as an engineer on federal construction and improvement projects involving river systems in Oregon and Washington; fortifications in Puget Sound; ports and lighthouses on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River; harbors in the Philadelphia area, Delaware Bay, and Long Island Sound; a deep-sea port at Galveston Island, Texas; and dams and locks on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. After the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Robert helped design a concrete seawall to protect against future tidal waves. Prior to his retirement on May 2, 1901, he was promoted to brigadier general, chief of engineers, U.S. Army.
Robert is best remembered, however, not as an engineer, but as an author. During the Civil War, Robert worked on fortification projects to strengthen defenses in several northern cities. While assigned to duty in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was asked to preside at a local public meeting. Embarrassed by knowing nothing about how to run a meeting, Robert used this experience to begin collecting bits of information about parliamentary procedure that he scribbled on note cards and carried around with him for several years. Finally, in 1876, he put his notes together into a self-published manuscript titled Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, better known by its short title, Robert’s Rules of Order. The work was immediately popular. Of the four thousand copies printed at his expense, Robert freely distributed one thousand to legislators and civic leaders across the country. The remainder sold in four months. In the years that followed, Robert updated and revised the manual several times. More than a half million copies had been sold by 1915. Robert’s Rules of Order has never been out of print and remains the definitive voice of parliamentary procedure in meeting rooms worldwide.
Robert married twice, first to Helen M. Thresher on December 24, 1860, and, following her death in 1895, to Isabel Livingstone Hoagland on May 8, 1901. Only the first marriage produced children, four daughters and one son. Robert died on May 11, 1923, in Hornell, New York. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Doyle, Don H. “Rules of Order: Henry Martyn Robert and the Popularization of American Parliamentary Law.” American Quarterly 32 (Spring 1980): 3–18.
Hendricks, George Brian. “Rules of Order: A Biography of Henry Martyn Robert, Soldier, Engineer, Churchman, Parliamentarian.” Master’s thesis, Georgia Southern University, 1998.
Lawton, Thomas O., Jr. “Our People: Henry Martyn Robert; Robert’s Rules of Order.” Carologue 16 (Winter 2000): 3.