How many times have you watched Hamilton? It’s okay, I’ve lost count too. In my most recent viewing, when Burr and Hamilton each proudly proclaim their letter-ending valedictions in the song “Your Obedient Servant”, I began thinking “Where exactly did this phrase come from, why did they use it, and how did it fall out of use?” Even though I am a historian, I have always taken the phrase for granted. It has always been there at the end of letters by Washington and his contemporaries, but I never really gave it much thought.
When was the last time you sat down to write a letter? – Better yet, an email? How did you “sign off”? Today, we mostly use short phrases like “sincerely”, “regards”, “best wishes”, or simply “yours” when we end written communications. However, in the 18th century, writing was not only a form of communication; it was also a method of entertainment, personal expression, and the preservation of events and thoughts for posterity. Simply put, longer, more expressive valedictions were more popular because writing letters was more popular. For example, in 1541, Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, wrote to the King of Spain and signed the letter “Your Majesty’s humble servant and vassal, who would kiss the royal feet and hands.” Could you imagine someone saying that to someone like Queen Elizabeth II today?
The truth is that our letter writing skills have all but gone by the wayside considering modern conveniences of instant communication. Making a phone call, texting, and sending an email are much more informal than sitting down and writing out a letter – or even typing out a letter. When George Washington put pen to paper, like he so often did, he put much more thought into his words than we do when we send a quick “lol”.
During the 18th century, the most common valedictions – defined as statements made as farewells – were variations on the letter’s author referring to themselves as the servant of the recipient. To determine the popularity of this “servant valediction” and its variations, I used Google Books Ngrams to search their database of books and see how many times various valedictions were used over time. While Ngrams searches books and not all letters from the time, it can still give us a good idea of how common each phrase might have been.
In the first graph, for example, we see that the shortened “your servant” appears quite a bit over time. It seems to fade from fashion briefly around 1700 before coming returning to popularity around 1800. It then begins to fall out of favor again and was rarely used in the 1900s. However, there appears to be an uptick in recent years and, perhaps we can credit this, at least partially, to the Hamilton-effect.
In the second graph, we see the phrase “your humble servant” was most popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Looking to Washington’s writings, we see him use this phrase in a letter to George Beall, a shopkeeper, in 1756.
Next, I entered the phrase “your obedient servant”. This phrase was also in its heyday at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Again looking to Washington’s papers, he does use the “your obedient servant” variation and often adds the word “most” as seen in a1755 letter to Robert Orme, a British soldier he fought with during the French and Indian War.
Ultimately, Washington’s most common servant valediction combined all of these variations into the lengthy “your most obedient and most humble servant” as seen in this letter to Governor Fauquier from 1758.
If you search the phrase “obedient servant” in the entirety of Founders Online, a digital repository of documents written by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and other early American luminaries, it will return over 16,000 results! That number wouldn’t include all of the instances where the words were abbreviated, which was also common. Indeed, even in the letters referred to in the Hamilton song; Alexander Hamilton writes “your obed. Servt”, abbreviating both key words in the phrase.
The use of the servant valediction didn’t fully fade from popularity until well after Washington’s life. By 1883, however, a different variation of the servant valediction had become popular. On page 43 of The Art of Correspondence, John Staples Locke instructs authors to use “respectfully yours” as a way to convey the same sentiment. It is still commonly seen today. Ultimately, even our simple “Yours” at the end of an email can be traced back to the flowery valedictions of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
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