History of Parliamentary Procedure

Based on a book of the same name by Darwin Patnode, Past President AIP (1974-75) Certified by AIP and National Association


Ancient Assemblies


Greece – City States e.g. Athens and Sparta


Ø      Headed by King or ruler, upper house of advisors, and a popular assembly (usually all free men)

Ø      Upper house (called the council) usually small but could expand to 500 and lower house invariable large frequently a few thousand Started off with elder advisors then had nobles. Council divided into 10 committees (quorum 1/3 for committees). Directed lower house for 1/10th of year.

Ø      Athens lower house called Ecclesia (those summoned, latter used by Church), consisted of all free Athenian citizens over 18, 6,000 taken to represent the state, maximum attendance did not exceed 5,000 only recorded vote 3,461 for 155 against.

Ø      No quorum recorded, a decree affecting a single individual required 6,000 and banishment required a 6,000 majority. After Peloponnesian War had to pay to get quorum. Ecclesia met 10 times a year but was increased by special session. Voting by show of hands, ballots on individuals/groups by pottery shard or white/black ball deposited in urn. Had closure of debate. Decision by majority in most cases

Ø      Agenda prepared by Council, but could be amended by Ecclesia. Business given to lower house to approve

Ø      Presiding officer chosen by lot by council leaders and presided only one day, could refuse business or permit illegal motions but was then open to prosecution

Ø      Everyone debated in beginning but then statesman and members of the Council. Council elected auditor to record proceedings

Ø      In Sparta similar but two kings, lower house called the Apella (Spartan citizens of at least 30 years), members of Council (5 Ephors) elected by assembly of the people called Gerousia by voice vote (judged by loudness by men shut of in a house). In one incident of declaration of war used a standing vote (division).




Ø      Upper house called Senate, lower Contio later Comitia

Ø      Met when desired until Empire than two times a month

Ø      Sitting in private but with open doors, speech unlimited until Augustus who put time limits, started with report of Chairman, then debate (senior senators first) and then vote by division, Tribunes could veto. Questors kept records. Certain motions had quorums

Ø      Legislation or main motions had priority based on who made them, consuls first, then praetors, and tribunes last

Ø      Last days of the Republic there was obstruction of legislation through filibuster, most famous was Cato, Consul Caesar order him removed and the whole Senate followed – no presiding officer ever tried to limit debate again

Ø      Presiding officer stated the motion at the end of debate (this could be different from motion proposed depending on debate).

Ø      Motions had no precedent and voting on one that carried usually cleared all others. The motion to adjourn was no more important than any other.

Ø      The Senate transacted a great deal of business. Voting was by majority but senators generally gravitated to the individual they agreed with. A division was accomplished by asking the Senators to go to a place chosen by the presiding office

Ø      Comitia or general assembly – people gathered in tribes, proposal put with no amendments allowed, senators and nobility spoke (not the people), then voted by tribe and usually by voice but sometimes with pottery shards marked “ut rogas” (affirmative) and “antiquo” (negative).


Medieval Parliamentary Procedure


Ø      After fall of Rome in 410 AD there were few rules, voting was by shouting and quite often bloodshed

Ø      Rules on voting was the first to re-emerge – statutes on having assemblies divide into affirmative and negative, elections had the most complex rules

Ø      Choosing electors by lot was popular, election of individual was thus indirect

Ø      Early Church meetings important matters required unanimous votes

Ø      Princes who did not vote for an issue often disobeyed the result

Ø      1179 Pope Alexander III issued a decree that future Popes had to be elected by a 2/3 vote, now 2/3 plus 1.

Ø      Slowly the majority principle took hold in Germany and Switzerland, Althing of Iceland oldest parliament – Chair elected for three years, majority vote, quorum, and after vote all had to commit to uphold the motion


The Development of Parliament in England


Ø      Early Anglo Saxon Kings e.g. Kent and Wessex pronounces theire laws or dooms on with consent of the witans (assemblies of great men) these came to be called councils (mentioned in 690 and 872 AD)

Ø      William the Conqueror in 1066 the use of the term Parliament (Parlez in French to speak) was used for the King speaking with his nobles about laws or issues

Ø      Magna Carta 1215 required the King not to raise taxes “except by common council with our Kingdom” it also set the quorum of 25 barons and expressed that a majority could make a decision

Ø      1254 Henry III was forced to call for the Commons to vote money for war as his Barons did not want to support him. The process was repeated and expanded in 1265 and Edward I summoned Knight and burgesses to the Parliament to discuss a variety of matters 1275

Ø      The Parliament of 1295 summoned by Edward 1 was the most fully representative and was consider the model parliament or first parliament

Ø      1340 two houses – Lords (upper) and Common (lower) mostly same rules until 18th century

Ø      The Parliament of 1339 stated it could not grant aid with out consulting with those whom it claimed to represent

Ø      Presiding Officer called the Speaker (or the one who spoke to the King)


Procedures in the English Parliament 1340 – 1832


Ø      Nine speakers died a violent death four during the war of the Roses

Ø      Many times was the King’s man

Ø      During Tudor times described as the manager of business of behalf of the crown, often held other positions, speaker vacated chair when House went into Committee as the result of a lack of trust

Ø      Early days listen to debate framed proposal of this devising to reflect the consensus of the members

Ø      Speakers were continually in trouble with the members of the house and this is reflected in various rules

Ø      Three Readings of the bill developed before 1400, first introduction, second debate and amendment, third perfection and final approval. Bill was read by the clerk for 100s of years now printed , also a committee stage now

Ø      Minutes/notes started in 1547, journal in 1580 or 81, official status 1623, House of Lords journal 1509

Ø      Sir Thomas Smyth first parliamentary rules  (1562-1566) after death incorporated into a publication into a larger work in 1583 De Republica Angolrum, The Manner of Government or Policie of the realme of England

Ø      From Smyth – he who rises bareheaded speaks first when recognized by the speaker and speaks only to the speaker and can only speak once to a bill in a day, temperance in speech, speaker cannot speak to bill,

Ø      In upper house may vote by proxy, this is contradicted later in the work by stating neither member may use proxy

Ø      Vote by voice, division by going down to vote for yes and remaining in your seat for no

Ø      Use of Committees noted for those bill or portions that are contentious

Ø      G. Petyt 1689 Lex Parliamentaria pocket manual sites 35 previous works, includes entries from the journals relating to rules:

o       One topic at a time 1581

o       Rotation of recognition 1592

o       Requirement of negative vote 1604

o       Decorum 1604

o       Germaneness of Debate 1610

o       Division of the question 1640

Ø      First quarter 1600s

o       Fix time for sessions 7-8 am to noon

o       Speaker forbidden to bring up anything later than this

o       Quorum 40 members 1640, number of Counties in England, still 40 which currently represent 6% of members

o       Adjournments made independent of Speaker

o       Arrangement of the business is with the Assembly and given to Speaker, noted at beginning of session

o       Members leaving must pay a fine, doors locked

o       Items can’t be introduced twice in a session

o       Rules limiting the speaker in late 1500 and early 1600 number of examples of Speaker limiting speech and giving direction from the Monarch

o       Speaker however refused to give the location of five members to Charles I who he wanted and told him he was a servant of the House

Ø      Until 1882 only one direct way to close debate in house through previous question – in it rational form it lead to the adjournment of the House and if not carried lead to the immediate vote on the motion – restrictions on use could not be used on motions concerning the transaction of public business, or amendments, or in any Committee

Ø      Other items such as seconder (not for Leaders or important members), requirement of notice for important motions

Ø      Division called by two members, members go to affirmative and negative rooms where clerks record vote and tellers would count, then result handed to Speaker who announces

Ø      Large Clerks table in front of the Speaker, thus the motion to lay on the Table.

Ø      In 1832 extensively revised


American Parliamentary Procedure


Procedure before 1800


Ø      Colonies of England adopted rules of the House of Commons – less power, sometimes adopted imperfectly (faulty memory) and sometimes directed by England

Ø      Quorum requirements frequently imposed, but also sometime dual in nature. A large quorum for beginning a session but a smaller quorum required for adjourning from day to day – same rules in the Constitution of the US and many States to day. Rules on absences and tardiness

Ø      Speaker could determine a tie by casting a vote, could usually explain a measure but could not engage in debate, appointment of committees with approval of the house, Speaker not present assembly not in session

Ø      Reading of bills and at what intervals (to ensure that members could be heard)

Ø      If a bill rejected could not be reintroduced in same session 

Ø      Debates – recognition and respect of the speaker. Rules on the number of time you could speak, usually once, more required permission, in Bahamas up to three times, many rules on decorum (aimed at giving your polite attention to the current speaker)

Ø      Voting on bills was by various means: yeas nays, standing, withdrawing, and written ballot

Ø      Lots of interesting rules dealing with decorum: no whispering, writing, walking about, reading, wearing or not wearing a sword, wearing of hats (just the speaker), offensive language, not using a members name, drinking and smoking bans, manner of dress

Ø       Departures from English rules: 1. majority vote in elections (vs plurality) – introduced early on in New England and spread to other colonies. Use of yea and nay established by Continental Congress in 1777. 2. Motion to reconsider – known in England but not used, in US could on be made by a member voting on the majority side. 3. Amendments had to be germane to the main motion. 4. More limits on debate in US but use of “committee of whole house” where debate was basically unlimited

Ø      Continental Congress 1774 (eve of the revolution), established rules: credentials of delegates, rules of conduct and debate, and appointed committees. Rules included: each Colony one vote, no person shall speak more than twice to same question, postponement of consideration, confidentially of business, President may adjourn Congress from day to day if no business

Ø      Constitutional Convention – May 28, 1787 – after nationhood achieved, a number of rules established: Quorum of seven deputies but less from day to day, minutes read of the previous day, address through President, decorum maintained, member not to speak more than twice and not before everyone else has spoken once, motions to be written, repeated by the Secretary before debated, may be withdrawn at any time before being voted on. Orders of the day to be read and discussed or postponed after the minutes are read. Motion under debate can only be amended, committed or postponed. Division of question on request. Confirmation of entire bill after consideration and vote by paragraph. Appointment of committees by ballot. Any member can be called to order by another or the President, only the President to decide on questions of order without appeal or debate. Motion to adjourn can be made at anytime.

Ø      The extraordinary powers given to the President can be explained as George Washington who was highly respected had been elected President before the promulgation of the rules

Ø      Rules were established and changed after the establishment of the Constitutional Convention by both the House of Representatives and the Senate these included:

o       Duties of the Speaker, decorum, debate, bill procedures and committees of the whole

o       Rules on division

o       Convening meetings and arrangement of the Chamber

o       Reading and correcting minutes of the preceding day

o       Lie on the Table

o       Every motion shall be repeated by the Chair and shall be put in writing at the request of the Chair

o       Adoption, rejection, amendment, commitment or postponement … a majority of votes shall govern

o       Addressing all remarks to the Chair, avoid using names

o       Calling for the question by four Senators if debate becomes tedious

o       Presidential assigning of the floor open to appeal

o       Entering names of mover and seconders in the minutes

o       No Senator shall speak twice on the same subject unless Chair agrees

o       Secrecy in certain situations

o       Attending committee meetings

o       Appointment of committeemen

o       Files open to Senators

o       Yeas and Nay entered in minutes if 1/5 of Senators desire it

o       Posting of names of Senator absent more than 15 minutes

Ø      Only one appeal of the Chair ruling was made in 1789 and the chair was upheld


American Parliamentary Procedure 1800 – 1869


Ø      Thomas Jefferson as Vice President and Chair of the Senate January 28, 1797, felt that he was so rusty that he had to write a parliamentary procedure manual (the first in the States). He used his legal mentor an experienced parliamentarian George Wythe to assist

Ø      He had a number of other sources which included:

o        John Hatsell’s  (Clerk of the House of Commons for a number of decades) Precedents in the House of Commons.

o       Institutes by Sir Edward Cooke an English Jurist.

o       Grey’s Debates by Anchitell Grey a member of Parliament

o       Journal of all the Parliaments during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth by Sir Simonds D’Ewes

Ø      Jefferson’s work A Manual of Parliamentary Practice was published on February 27, 1801. The Manual was a guide for the Senate and in many cases quoted liberally from the above mentioned texts.

Ø      According to Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-59) Americans were great enthusiasts for private clubs and associations. Jefferson’s work could not be easily applied to these organizations.

Ø      The first manual for private organizations or deliberative assemblies was written by Luther S. Cushing in 1844 and called Manual of Parliamentary Practice It was written specifically for Deliberative Assemblies which were not legislative in nature

Ø      Cushing’s covered the following:

o       Rules on quorum and presiding officer

o       Privileged motions: Adjournment, question of privilege and orders of the day

o       Incidental

o       Subsidiary and other motions

o       Debate – head uncovered, avoiding use of names and one speech per member per question

o       Reconsideration

o       Committees

Ø      Cushing’s was different as it was designed for private assemblies, didn’t quote other authorities and did not assume that the body had other rules

Ø      Cushing’s Manual’s weakness was that it was a general compilation of Common Parliamentary Law quite often giving options and not prescriptions or advice on how to handle situations. It encouraged assemblies to adopt rules

Ø      Cushing also published a master work known as Lex Parliamentaria Americana (1,000 pages), on the practices of the House of Commons of England, House of Representatives and Senate and the States of the USA

Ø      Cushing’s Manual went through a number of editions and was republished in 1964 as Modern Rules of Order


American Parliamentary Procedure 1869 – 1949 General Henry M. Roberts


Ø      Roberts was a graduate of West Point in 1857 (with high honours)

Ø      Military Engineer and Associate Professor, and was active during the Civil War

Ø      1863 was asked to preside over a meeting and was embarrassed over his ignorance of parliamentary procedure

Ø      He observed wherever he went a general confusion at meetings. He studied Cushing, Jefferson, and a number of other works and decided they added to the confusion

Ø      He decided to write a 15 page pamphlet for himself and colleagues to be used in meetings of various charitable, social and civic organizations that he and his wife belonged

Ø      In the winter of 1874 while stationed in Milwaukee he began work on a set of useable rules for assemblies. Unlike Cushings’ these were to be prescriptive, useable and adoptable for small assemblies

Ø      By the end of 1874 the book went to print (4,000 copies). It took quite a while to print (only 16 pages at a time) so he wrote a section on Organizations and the Conduct of Business which dealt with formative meetings, various officers, committees, conventions, mass meetings, purposes of certain motions and a few other items which became part II of the completed 176 page book.

Ø      He had to find a publisher and this was difficult as he was an unknown. He finally ended up paying for the binding himself.

Ø      Roberts sent out copies to legislators, editors, lawyers and officers of various organizations so when the book finally came out in 1876 rave reviews had already been published and the book was sold out in three months. He added a part III on miscellaneous items such as disciplining members, bringing the number of pages to 196, which also published in 1876.

Ø      Roberts continued to revise his work and expand on it but always keeping to the theory that his book had rules, not options or many ways, but one set of rules to be adopted by an organization.

Ø      Roberts published a number of other works including his masterwork in 1923 just before his death, a 588 page study Parliamentary Law.

Ø      The key to understanding the importance of Roberts is he popularized parliamentary procedure and made it workable for small and varied organizations


Contemporary American Parliamentary Procedure


Ø      In 1970 the heirs of Roberts assisted by a lawyer and a teacher produced Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised – more extensive and explanatory (but keeping to Roberts original rules) and had a teaching bent to it

Ø      There has been a number of works concerning the 20 Century Legislative Assembly including: Paul Mason’s Legislative Procedure first printed in 1935 and in 1970, Hind’s and Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representative of the United States, and Deschler’s Procedure: A Summary of the Modern Precedents and the Practices of the U. S. House of Representatives and Senate Procedure and Practices by Floyd M. Riddick

Ø      Three distinct attempts to challenge Roberts supremacy:

o       Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure by Alice F. Sturgis 1950 – two goals – to focus on legalisms and make a manual that was clear and simple for everyone to understand. The challenge was not successful even with a second printing in 1966. The third printing was this year. Her major contribution was to argue that only a majority was needed and that Roberts had elevated the 2/3 vote and applied it to too many situations

o       Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure 1948 by George Demeter, who produced a set of rules more fully explained then Roberts and had a less impersonal style. He included quizzes for students. He was equally unsuccessful in his challenge

o       Modern Parliamentary Procedure 1974 for Ray E. Keesey in which he modernizes the language, and simplifies procedures reducing their number (190 pages). Unheard of today.


Canadian Parliamentary Procedure


Ø      Canadian Parliament and rules closely aligned with the mother Parliament in Britain, independence not until 1867, own constitution with no referral to UK not until 1982

Ø      Sir John George Bourinot, (1837 – 1902) Clerk of the House of Commons of Canada, Bourinot’s Rules of Order in 1894, revised by J. Gordon Dubroy Second Clerk Assistant: House of Commons of Canada 1962 and Third Edition by Geoffrey H. Standford, 1977 Member of the Board of Trade and managed CNE Department of Manufacturers and a 4th Rev edition October 1995 also by the Standford

Ø      Bourinot’s Rules frontispiece, Third Edition “A manual on the practices and usages of the House of Commons of Canada and on procedure at public assemblies, including meetings of shareholders and directors of companies, political conventions, and other gatherings” 

Ø      Borinot’s used by Unions and Municipalities in Canada

Ø      In August 1983 Professors M. Kaye Kerr, Ph.D., C. Psych. Department of Psychology University of Winnipeg and Hubert W. King Ph.D. P. Eng. Department of Engineering Physics, Technical University of Nova Scotia write Procedures for Meetings and Organizations, 2nd edition in 1988 and 3rd edition April 1996

Ø      In the preface of Kerr and King’s book of 1983 written by C. B. Koester Clerk of the Canadian House of Commons he states “The standard authorities on parliamentary practice May, Bourinot and Beauchesne, are not readily applied to the circumstances of a private organization since they only treat the problems of formal deliberative bodies of a political character”

Ø      Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne 's Rules and Forms of the House of Commons of Canada [6th ed. by Fraser, Dawson and Holtby], Carswell Co. Ltd., Toronto, 1989. and May, E., Parliamentary Practice, 21st ed., Butterworths, London, 1989


Richard Slee

Presented to Toronto Parliamentary Society April 3, 2001 and October 2, 2001


On Canadian Parliamentary Procedure and Law


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Last revised July 16, 1996

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