Origins and Precedents. -- Parliamentary law, as it now exists, had its origin as a system in the Parliament of England. Undoubtedly in every country and in every age where assemblies of people were held, some form of procedure became established and was followed. But these forms of procedure have in many, perhaps most instances, perished, and would probably be of little use to us now if fully known. The English system itself has been so changed within human memory in every other country where the parliamentary system of government has been adopted, that English precedents afford us little help as to actual procedure. Nevertheless, they are still of much use in determining and illustrating fundamental principles. Before the time when Jefferson wrote his little treatise, which is known as Jefferson’s Manual, American parliamentary law was, for the most part, an agglomeration of English precedents which were reverenced because they were precedents, and not because they were examples of proper methods of expediting business. Before that time but little effort had been made to reconcile precedents with principles, and parliamentary law was not a system founded on principle and settled by the dictates of reason. It can not be said now to be a perfect method easily adjusted to all cases, but it has been changed for the better, and the change has been brought about in a natural way. Whatever concerns large bodies of men, and is thought over by large numbers of intelligent people, gets infiltrated with the common sense of the many and becomes adapted to their wants and needs. Under a popular government like our own much of the work of government is carried on by bodies and assemblages outside of the regularly constituted legislatures, councils, and legal boards. As a preliminary to the regular government of the country, conventions are necessary for the nomination of candidates and for the conduct of campaigns. As a means of utilizing wealth by union of limited sums, corporations are formed to enable large enterprises to be conducted. The members of these corporations have to meet to transact business, and the directors chosen by them have also to act together as a body. Many movements in connection with education and with other forms of human progress, including all the movements which have gone on and are going on for enfranchisement of women, require assemblages for very many purposes. Wherever there is an assembly there is need of parliamentary law, so that the assembly may proceed in orderly fashion with as little jar and discord as possible, and accomplish the work to be performed, which work in all instances is to obtain the sense of the assembly and shape its action in accord therewith. This increase of assemblies, the extent of which has been but hinted at, has necessarily brought the law which governs them more and more into discussion until today a tolerable system can be stated which will appeal at once to the good sense of all, and also to the experience of those who have had occasion to be versed in the practice.
Of course, there are disputed points, many questions on which authorities seem to differ, and the practice to be varied. In such cases that rule has been adopted in this Manual which seemed the most practical and sensible, not always in itself, but as a part of a working system.
As has already been intimated, we can have but scant recourse to English precedents, for the difference between English and American parliamentary law is so wide that it would hardly be possible for a parliamentarian, practiced in our law only, to understand the proceedings of the House of Commons. There the previous question kills the bill, with us it only kills the debate. There a motion to adjourn, at least of a certain kind, is debatable, and a motion to adjourn debate can be debated to exhaustion. With us the body must say yes or no to the question of adjournment, and the motion to adjourn debate, at least in that form, is unknown. There they do not “strike out.” They prefer to decide whether or not the words “shall stand part of the question.” A motion to reconsider is not allowed. With us it is altogether too common.
Nor, on the other hand, have we much help from our own popular parliamentary body, the House of Representatives. There a variety of causes have conspired to make the forms of procedure peculiar to itself. Perhaps on the whole it would not be suitable in a treatise like this to specify these causes, but every one recognizes the fact that whether the causes for the slow procedure of the House are proper causes, the fact remains that the procedure of the House is not adapted to the ordinary assembly, and, so far as my knowledge extends, has never been adopted in its entirety by any legislature.
The parliamentary law, then, which we have to describe has grown up among the people for their own uses, and is on the whole well-adapted to the ends they have in view.