A Stamp of a Memorial, at Least

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

If Betty Boop and Elvis have postage stamps in their honor, doesn't "the American author of the democratic process" deserve one?

Connie DeFord, head of the National Association of Parliamentarians, has been asking that, and, so far, the U.S. Postal Service says no. The distinguished face of Army Gen. Henry Martyn Robert will remain in history's shadows, despite a petition drive that netted 4,000 signatures.

Never mind that the book Robert wrote is democracy's bible, that public meetings in this self-governing democracy couldn't function without it. Never mind that since its publication in 1876, the book has never been out of print or that its influence extends around the world.

The Postal Service gets 50,000 proposals a year for stamp subjects. Betty Boop sells better than Henry Martyn Who? She gets the stamp.

"Robert's Rules of Order." Most know of it, but fewer know of its author, onetime District resident Henry Martyn Robert. And fewer still know that he has a memorial in Washington.

As it should be, it's on an orderly stretch, the 1800 block of N Street NW, between Connecticut Avenue and 19th Street. A clean, well-lighted Moby Dick House of Kabob caters to lunch and dinner customers there. Across the street, the green awning of the cozy 1800 Cafe welcomes on-the-go breakfast customers. Rowhouses, handsomely merged into a larger office building, are home to an architecture and planning office, Crisis Magazine and a dry cleaners. With purple pansies and purple-tinged cabbage plants growing in curbside flower beds, the block is a bit staid but certainly tidy and attractive.

And at 1812 N St., where Robert lived, underneath a holly bush in a flower bed fringed with elephant grass, is a granite block less than a foot high, a copper plaque atop. The plaque is dedicated to the memory of the man who ought to be the orderly block's patron saint.

He was an Army civil engineer who commanded a party exploring a military route from western Canada to Puget Sound, a brigadier general who built up the defenses of Washington and Philadelphia against Johnny Reb invaders and a member of the commission that designed the Galveston sea wall after the island city was swept away by a hurricane. He died in 1923.

This accomplished fellow, a West Point graduate, also had much to do with the shaping of Rock Creek Park, but none of his engineering exploits account for his fame, such as it is. An orderly sort himself, he not only wrested order out of nature's chaos, he also brought order to contentious human nature.

Robert is the man who, even today, keeps meetings of lawmakers, ladies clubs, school boards and corporate directorates from devolving into shouting matches or worse; who keeps PTA meetings and corporate board gatherings calm and orderly (most of the time). He's the man who keeps us mannerly. His rules of order, in DeFord's words, "allow us to make informed decisions but where everybody has equal rights to participate."

"Every parliamentarian has heard stories of meetings that blow up in an awful way," says his grandson, Henry Martyn Robert III of Annapolis. "But it need not be. The rules are the secret."

As Robert the grandson tells the story, the elder Robert was living in New Bedford, Mass., in 1863 and was asked to preside over a meeting to consider the defense of the city during the Civil War.

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