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Politicians and bartenders – What did Paul Harris Think?

“No Politicians” Charlie Newton early Rotarian.

Charlie Newton

Among the early Rotarians of 1905 there were many unwritten rules. Chief among these “gentlemen’s agreements” was the exclusion of all politicians and bartenders from holding Rotary membership.

According to Harry Ruggles, the “fifth founder of Rotary” the ban on saloonkeepers was due to the fact that, “Some of the boys spent too much time at the brass rail” and “arrived at the meeting feeling rather jolly and relaxed. “  In time, Rotary’s position regarding bartenders and alcohol changed dramatically. However, the ban against politicians, to this day, still is in effect. 

Harry Ruggles

From the beginning, Chicago Rotarians felt that any discussions about politics or contentious public issues only encouraged discord that went against the first founding principles of their club which was based on “Honesty, Morality and Sobriety.”

Interestingly, even with this apparent prohibition against political involvement, there are several instances where the Chicago Club violated its own mandate.  They often made public statements in support of or in opposition to matters like tariffs, or clean water or other divisive issues not directly related to the few goals of a Rotary club. In fact, Rotary’s first service project of providing rest facilities in downtown Chicago was highly political and stirred debate for many years.

But here again, as time went by, the issuance of political statements evolved into a position that “no corporate action or corporate expression of opinion shall be taken or given by Rotary on political subjects.”  Only once, during the lead up to World War Two, did Rotary International express an opinion that stated the goals of Rotary could not exist in any country where the fundamental human rights of free speech, freedom of religion, and tolerance were suppressed.

So while the official position of all Rotary clubs and Rotary International is to remain neutral, and that Rotary best demonstrates its commitment to peace and humanitarian endeavors through its desire to serve, it does not mean Rotarians should live in a vacuum.

Some of the most iconic pictures show politicians standing at a podium decorated with the Rotary wheel.  It is the duty of all Rotarians to be fair. And the only way to be fair is to be informed. It does not go against the tenets of neutrality to listen to or question those who propose to lead us. So while it is absolutely essential that no club endorse or validate one candidate or position over another, it is critical that Rotary provide a fair and balanced forum that allow Rotarians and the general public to make their own decisions.

Fred Carvin PDG

Author- “Paul Harris and the Birth of Rotary”

Copyright © Fred A. Carvin unpublished Aug 2016

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