The Parliamentary Manual

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After Jefferson became vice-president and presiding officer of the Senate, he was concerned there were no written procedural rules to which every member could easily refer. With the initiative that defined him in so many endeavors, he began the composition of a manual of parliamentary procedure.

By this time, Jefferson was a legislative veteran. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, on a committee in the Continental Congress to draw up rules of procedure, and in the Virginia House of Delegates, before he reached the vice presidency. Beginning with his student days at William and Mary, he had acquired 40 years of notes on parliamentary procedure. “It is typical of Jefferson’s finely organized and persistent mind that the beginnings of the manual can be traced to his student days between 1760 and 1762 at William and Mary College.”[i]

 After he became president, Jefferson organized the manual and had it published in 1801. It was a small pocket-sized edition so that it could be readily accessible. Jefferson’s concern was with the rights of those in the minority. Adherence to standard rules and proceedings “operated as a check, and control on the actions of the majority, and … they were in many instances a shelter and protection to the minority, against the attempts of power.”[ii]

Even though this is a compilation of existing rules, and not an original devise, the intellectual effort required was prodigious and has often been overlooked. His desire to provide this manual reveals his passion for order and his sense of duty. He writes, “It is much more material that there shall be a rule to go by, then what the rule is.”

Richard Dixon

Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson and Philosophy, Edited by M Andrew Holowchak, “A Lawyer’s Path to a Legal Philosophy,” by Richard E Dixon, (Lexington Books, 2014)

[i] Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (Applewood Books, 1801), vii, from the introduction by James Gilreath, American History Specialist, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library Of Congress.
[ii] Jefferson quoting Onslow, Speaker of the House of Commons: Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, 1.
[iii] Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, 2.