The term parliamentary law came from the English Parliament where it meant "the rules for carrying on the business of the Parliament." These rules evolved through a continuing process of development and precedent, similar to that of common law. They were brought to America with the early settlers who used them in their own legislative assemblies, and they further evolved. General parliamentary law or common parliamentary law of today has developed out of this legislative tradition.
Parliamentary law is used in deliberative assemblies, a term first used by Edmund Burke to refer to the English Parliament. It means a "group of persons meeting to make group decisions, to discuss and to determine a common course of action."
Under parliamentary law, a deliberative assembly can adopt any written rules of procedure. It can also add to or deviate from its own rules of procedure. Rules of order refers to a set of written parliamentary rules adopted by the assembly to conduct its business. These can be an existing set of rules especially composed by the assembly. Parliamentary procedure refers to the parliamentary law that a deliberative assembly follows, plus whatever additional rules of order the assembly may adopt for itself.
The origin of the English parliament is in the village assemblies of the Anglo-Saxon tribes that migrated to the British Isles in the fifth century A.D. In those days, freemen came together in a village-moot to make bye-laws for their village and to administer justice. Other larger deliberative assemblies of the day were the hundred-moot, a kind of district court of appeal, and the folk-moot, a still higher authority for arbitrating disputes. In Anglo-Saxon times, the folk-moot became the Shire-moot, later called the Shire-court.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the French administration developed a Great Council made up of feudal barons who advised the king. These were not truly democratic organizations because they were under the thumb of a king and a feudal system, but they formed the beginnings of a democratic parliament.
In the thirteenth century, the Great Council gradually evolved into the beginnings of the parliament that is known today. The barons who attended the king began to discuss with each other the state of the realm and the king's business. The parliament then began to include representatives of the shires and the boroughs (similar to counties and towns). These representatives were called the commons. Before long, they were in attendance at every parliament. Parliament was then separated into the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
During the next two centuries, procedures in the Parliament developed slowly and eventually were written down and published as part of a larger work by Sir Thomas Smyth in the sixteenth century. The first book about parliamentary procedures was Lex Parliamentaria by G. Petyt; it was a pocket manual prepared for members of parliament. This resource enumerated some of the most fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure, such as:
Take up business one subject at a time.
Alternate between opposite points of view in debate.
Require the chair to call for the negative vote.
Keep personal attacks out of the debate.
Debate only the merits of the question under discussion.
Divide a question into two or more questions if appropriate.
Parliamentary procedure came to America in the seventeenth century when Virginia's House of Burgesses was founded in 1619. Other colonies founded governing assemblies based on their experiences in the old European countries from which they came. Eventually, their experiences led to the framing of state constitutions and state legislatures, which have their own rules of order.
In the eighteenth century, the restrictive policies of the British Empire caused American colonists to consider common resistance to the British colonial government. When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, its members already had enough parliamentary procedural experience to conduct business expeditiously. The Second Continental Congress framed the Declaration of Independence and declared war on the British colonial government. Existing state constitutions provided the material from which the Constitutional Convention of 1787 framed the U.S. Constitution. Through all of this turmoil, parliamentary procedures and rules were used to expedite business and to help resolve deep disagreements among the delegates. Out of this experience came the U.S. Constitution, which has been used as a model for other independent national constitutions worldwide. The usefulness of parliamentary procedure cannot be overemphasized in such a process because it enables many different representatives of widely varying points of view to come to a common agreement in the very difficult circumstances of a political revolution.
The first book about parliamentary procedure in America was Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice, published in 1801. Jefferson was serving as Vice President and Presiding Officer of the Senate. He observed that the Senate did not have a codified set of rules of order but rather allowed the presiding officer a wide discretionary power to make up rules as he went along. Jefferson saw that this power could easily be abused in the future, so he developed a set of parliamentary rules based on English works and documents regarding the procedures of the British Parliament. The Senate, state legislatures, other groups, and the House of Representatives adopted Jefferson's manual. (The House later developed its own unique set of procedural rules.)
The next book about parliamentary procedure was Cushing's Manual, which was a set of rules for voluntary organizations whose needs differed from legislative bodies. The meetings of small organizations were shorter, their delegates unpaid, and their business less voluminous, so a different set of rules was needed to accommodate such organizations. Cushing's Manual basically said that each organization should follow fundamental parliamentary law as outlined in the manual but should adopt its own rules of order appropriate to itself. While this idea was good in theory, it didn't have the practical effect of significantly helping new voluntary organizations. Many of them did not have the time, the expertise, or the will to develop their own set of parliamentary rules. Thus, there was still parliamentary confusion in organizations when Henry Robert arrived on the scene in the 1860s.