In political letters throughout history, the closing "Your Obedient Servant" appears many times (For example, president Lincoln uses it in all of his letters). Where and how did this phrase originate and how did its usage develop?
Early specimens of 'your obedient servant'
The earliest Google Books match for "your obedient servant" at the close of a letter is from a letter from an Englishman (from York) contained in George Smith, The Compleat English Grammar (1758), as part of a somewhat more elaborate leave-taking:
Sir your friend
your obedient Servant
and Unfeigned friend.
The same Google Books search finds a match from The Gentleman's Magazine, or Monthly Intelligencer (June 1742), involving an interview with "Landois the Second," a courtier, originally published in Common Sense. In this instance, the phrase comes at the close of the interview:
A, Sir, I thank you. We are the Chancellor of the Exchequer's most humble Servant,———by his good conduct we have gain'd Part of your Trade, and humbled our Enemies upon the Continent———long, very long may he rule over you for our Sakes; but if he was our Chancellor of the Exchequer, we should serve him a Trick that I do not much care to tell;———however, I am obliged to you for your Information, and am your obedient Servant, &c.
And a translation (from Spanish) of the closing to a brief letter from General Wall to the Spanish ambassador on reprinted in Papers Relative to the Rupture with Spain (1762) ends with this:
Most Excellent Lord, I kiss your Excellency's Hands,
Your obedient Servant,
Don RICARDO WALL
But the Google Books search's earliest formal and succinct "your humble servant" in English-language letter closures are from the 1770s. The first appears in a letter from Walter Shirley to John Fletcher, reprinted in John Fletcher, A Vindication of the Rev. Mr. Wesley's Last Minutes (1771):
I am SIR, Your obedient Servant, WALTER SHIRLEY.
Then from William Tryon to Jonathan Trumbull written on April 17, 1778, and reproduced in The Town and Country (July 1778):
I am, Sir, your obedient servant, W. TRYON.
(In his letter of response to Tryon, Governor Turnbull used the equally polite wording "I am, Sir, your humble servant," leaving us to decide whether a humble servant or an obedient one is the more conformable to one's will.)
And the other in a letter from George Johnstone to Robert Morris, written on June 16, 1778, and reproduced in The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany (October 1778):
I am, with affection and esteem, dear Sir, your obedient servant, Geo. Johnstone.
The Shirley letter was written and published in England, but both of the 1778 instances involve American correspondents—and indeed there appears to have been a vogue of this usage in the United States in the late 1700s.
The wording "Your obedient servant" was fairly common in both the United States and Great Britain by 1800.
Early specimens of 'obliged and obedient' (and often humble) servants
The lengthier sign-offs of the "obliged and obedient" school are spread across the late 1600s and much of the 1700s. I will try to provide a representative selection of these florid farewells, both with regard to year of writing and mode of expression. First, from William Temple to the King, written on December 4, 1674, published in Letters to the King, the Prince of Orange, the Chief Ministers of State, and Other Persons, volume 3 (1703):
The Knowledge of all worth your Majesty's Trouble from hence, will, I know, be transmitted from my Lord Chamberlain, and leave me no other Part than that of my Humble Acknowledgments upon the Confidence your Majesty has been pleased to express of me in so great Occasions, and the plain Offers of that very Sincere Devotion, wherewith I am, and shall ever be,
Your Majesty's most Loyal
Subject, and most Obedient
From a letter from F.E. to "your grace" written some time in 1688 and reprinted in The State Letters of Henry, Earl of Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland During the Reign of K. James the Second (1763):
God send your grace a good night, and a happy morning. I am
your obliged and obedient servant,
From a supposed letter from Lady Lizard to the author, in Addison & Steele's The Guardian (April 30, 1713):
Your most Obliged,
and Obedient Humble Servant,
From a letter from Richard Steele to the clergy of the Church of England, in The Political State of Great Britain (January 1714):
And as there are no Instruments under Heaven so capable of this great Work, that God would make you such to this divided Nation, is the hearty Prayer of, GENTLEMEN, Your most dutiful, and most obedient Humble Servant, RICHARD STEELE.
From the epistle dedicatory to the second edition of William Petty, The Political Anatomy of Ireland, 1672 (1719):
May it please your Lordship,
Most obliged, and most
Obedient, Humble Servant
From a letter from A, Ramsay to Jonathan Swift, written on August 1, 1727, in Letters Written By The Late Jonathan Swift, D. D. Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin; and Several of His Friends, volume 2 (1768):
I am with the utmost regard and esteem, reverend Sir, your most humble, and most obliged, obedient servant,
From a letter from B. Motte to Jonathan Swift, written on October 4, 1735, and reprinted in Letters Written By The Late Jonathan Swift, D. D. Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin; and Several of His Friends, volume 4 (1766):
I have been so particular (I fear even to tediousness) in that letter, that I have nothing to add, but a repetition of the sincere profession I there made, that I am, with all possible gratitude, truth, and sincerity, Sir, your obliged and obedient humble servant,
From an epistle dedicatory to the commissioners of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in John Woodman, The Rat-catcher at Chelsea College: A Tale (1740):
...that every one on this Board may so encourage and promote a Design, propos'd entirely for Good and Use of the Publick, that he may say with more Justice than Horace did, "Exegi Monumentum ære perennius," is the ardent Prayer and Expectation of,
Most obedient humble Servant,
From a letter written by John Spencer to the citizens of Bristol, England, reprinted in The Whitehall Evening Post Or London Intelligencer (1756):
...and assure you, I shall always continue to wish the utmost Prosperity to the City of Bristol, and am,
Your obliged and obedient humble Servant,
Then, from a letter from Richard Grindall to William Watson, written on December 7, 1857, and reprinted in The Universal Magazine (1758):
I am, with respect,
Your obliged and obedient Servant,
In a letter from John Morgan to the Sheriff of Herfordshire, written on June 10, 1763, and published in The London Magazine; Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer (1763):
I am, Mr. Sheriff,
Your obliged and obedient
And in a letter from George Washington to John Jay, written April 14, 1779, and reprinted in The Life of John Jay: With Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers, volume 2 (1833):
With the truest esteem and personal regard,
I am, dear sir,
Your obliged and obedient servant,
Today, "Your obedient servant" may sound extravagant and highly ornamental; but in the second half of the eighteenth century, when it first became popular, it must have sounded almost brusque, arriving as it did after many decades of truly elaborate declarations of loyal and grateful servitude.
The short answer to the question "Where did 'Your obedient servant' originate?" is "In abject expressions of admiration of and devotion to powerful people by letter writers, book writers, and other supplicants seeking patronage, ingratiation, and in some cases forgiveness." The form later carried over to exchanges between equals, just because it seemed respectful and polite, and at some point received a pairing down to "Your humble servant"—and from there, perhaps, to the even more abrupt "Yours truly," "Sincerely yours," or just "Yours."
Update (October 12, 2019): 'Your obedient servant' in letter closes before 1750
I checked the Hathi Trust database for of publications and found several instances of "Your obedient servant" at the close of letters published before 1742. Following are some examples.
From a letter of Secretary Windebank, clerk, to Viscount Conway (May 7, 1640), reprinted in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Seriesof the Reign of Charles I, 1640 (1880):
... The intelligence which your Lordship has been pleased thus freely to begin I beseech you to continue, and if you will make it a step to render me of more use and consideration to you, I shall hold that a great ad to the honour and happiness of your obedient servant.
From a letter from the Earl of Thomond to H. Cromwell (February 18, 1658) in A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, volume 7 (1742):
...I shall only add, that my head, being ill, was was made better by writing, and my hear=t much cordialed to apprehend, that my lines may be received with that welcome, as my exact obedience presentes them with my lowest reverence to yourselfe and worthy lady : my lord, now and ever to my power,
Your obedient servant,
From a letter from Richard Watts to Joseph Williamson (June 12, 1667), in Calendar of State Papers, Domestic series, of the Reign of Charles II, 1667 (1866)
... I am commanded by you to show you the opinion and report of the country, But if I should write all, I should first request for a pardon, for mouths are now very loose.
But Sir, I am,
Your obedient Servant,
From the Epistle Dedicatory to the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, in John Goodman, The Leaven of Pharisaism and Sadducism Purged Out : A Sermon Preached December 16, 1688 (1689):
And may all you the Worthy Magistrates of this Great and Famous City, live to see Jerusalem in its Glory ; ... so that You in your Stations may be instrumental in so Glorious a Work, shall be the Hearty Prayer of
(My Lord and Gentlemen)
Your Obedient Servant
From a letter from Elihu Yale to Captain James Perriman (January 20, 1689), in Records of Fort St. George: Letters from Fort St. George, 1689 (1916):
... I have also forbade of Cheife att Conomeer to entertain any of yor : soldiers who writes me there is none in their service but passible they may be in the Duans as many of ours and & out of my reach but be assur'd I shall protect none of them from you being
Your obedient servant
From a letter from Captain Peter Wall to Abraham Anselm (May 26, 1693), in The Manuscripts of the House of Lords, 1693–1695 (1900):
... I have no more to add, but I am your obedient servant at command. Signed, Peter Wall.
From a letter from Charles Brooke in answer to a paper by William Penn (~April 1697) in The Manuscripts of the House of Lords, 1695–1697 (1903):
All which is humbly submitted by your obedient servant—
From The Compleat Mendicant : or, Unhappy Beggar (1699):
'Tis true, 'tis a violent necessity that has urg'd me upon this ungrateful expedient, and that I hope, in Conjunction with your own Charity and Compassion, will interpose a little for this unfortunate dtranger, that with all the distance and submission that can be, Subscribes himself, your Obedient Servant,
From a letter from Matthew Birche to the government of Pennsylvania (August 17, 1699), in The Manuscripts of the House of Lords, 1699–1702 (1908):
... But I have given your Honours such large accounts of these things that this may be tautology. I wait your commands and am
Your obedient servant,
From a letter from James Hamilton to Brigadier General Maitland (July 23, 1703), in Journals of the House of Lords, volume 17 (1701–1704):
...If it be a Match at Hunting only, I know not ; but I think it my Duty to acquaint you, whatever may fall out, of any such Body of Men in Arms, particularly in our Northern Parts. My humble Duty to your Lady. I am,
Your obedient Servant,
From a letter from Sir George Rooke to the Governor of Gibralter (July 22, 1704), in The Manuscripts of the House of Lords, 1704–1706 (1912):
... But, if you think fit to refuse this offer [of terms for surrender], we will this night storm the town and put every soul to the sword, so that, for the effusion of the blood that shall be shed on this occasion, it will be charged on your own madness and not on the inclinations of, Sir, your obedient servant, G. Rooke.
From a letter from John Gyles to Alderman M____ (February 16, 1709) in The Present State of Europe for the Month of March 1709 (1709):
SIR, After You and the Clergy, and your other Friends, have perused the Book I have left with your servant, please let it be sent to Parker's Coffee-House, there to remain for the Perusal of the Clergy, and others, in order to publish the Message to the Learned and Knowing of this City. I am
Your obedient servant,
From The Tatler, No. 78 (October 8, 1709):
'SIR, I am just recovering out of a languishing sickness by the care of Hippocrates, who visited me throughout my whole illness, ... I know no method of thanking him, but recommending it to you to celebrate so great humanity in the manner you think fit, and to do it with the spirit and sentiments of a man just relieved from grief, misery, and pain, to joy, satisfaction, and ease : in which you will represent the grateful sense of your obedient servant, T. B.'
From The Spectator, No. 398 (June 6, 1712):
'MADAM,—I have that prejudice in favour of all you do, that it is not possible for you to determine upon what will not be very pleasing to your obedient servant, CYNTHIO.'
From The Spectator, No. 432 (July 16, 1712):
Reflections of this nature have expunged all prejudices out of my heart; insomuch, that though I am a firm Protestant, I hope to see the pope and cardinals without violent emotions; and though I am naturally grave, I expect to meet good company at Paris.
I am, Sir, your obedient Servant.
From a letter by Thomas Cooke to Nathaniel Elwick (February 1, 1722), in Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1722 (1930):
... I can give your Hon. &ca. no further Accot. of it being with Respect.
Honble. Sr. &ca.
Your obedient servant
From a letter from the Duke of Montagu to the Duke of Newcastle (January 1728), in Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1728–1729 (1937):
I depend upon you to be my friend and advocate, and I intend to waite on you Wednesday morning to know my fate, for i hope by that tyme you will have settled it with your brother Ministers, and not only till then but for ever, I am and shall be your obedient servant, Signed, Montagu.
From a letter from Joshua Ward to the editor of The Political State, in The Political State of Great Britain for January 1735 (1735):
Wherefore, as I have the Lord Chief Baron's Leave, I beg you will insert the inclosed Letter and Case in your next Paper, and you will very much oblige,
Your obedient Servant,
From a letter from Y. Z. to the author of The Political State in The Political State of Great Britain for April 1739 (1739):
I am, SIR,
Your obedient Servant,
These numerous examples indicate that use of "Your obedient servant" as part of a polite sign-off to a letter goes back to at least 1640, and had become fairly common in some formal settings by the final decade of the seventeenth century.
See this 1633 example from Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Used in his 1633 Trial by the Inquisition.
Humiliso et Obdns Sevs
which is in Latin:
Humilus et Oboedens Servus
Humble and Obedient Servant
How I see this phrase is that it could perhaps be an English version of the common greeting or concluding saying "Servus" which is common more often now in eastern European countries but was a derivative of the Latin saying "Servus humillimus sum, O domine spectabilis" which means "I am [your] humble servant, O noble lord". (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servus)
This saying was quite popular in medieval times, especially for those educated in Latin, so it would make sense that during the Enlightenment period, a point at which Latin was most widely taught and held one of its highest estimations throughout the world, that this saying would be adopted not only in Latin, but in its translated English variation by whosoever was educated enough in both languages and adopted the ancient saying. And especially since those most of who knew how to write well and whose letters we have extant were usually also educated in Latin (as was tradition for most education), it makes quite a lot of sense then that the letters would have been concluded in that "O so notably Roman" fashion.
There may very well be other causes for the existence of this saying, whereof I remain presently and unfortunately unaware, but this seems to make the greatest sense to myself. It is only a theory in the end tho', and I am personally not educated sufficiently in the historical happenings of the 17th and 18th century to pronounce any conclusive reasoning whether this or some other theory is true.
I am surprised that no one has offered the opinion that the use of this phrase may have originated in the fact that Jesus is represented in the gospel of Mark as teaching that his followers are never to seek to domineer or rule one another, but are to be servants and even slaves of one another because, he says, even "the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:43-45).
Such an admonition to practice loving, freely given servanthood toward others (not to be confused with enforced, compelled servitude) may have caused people to think they should at least pay lip service to that ideal in the way they signed their correspondence. (I feel compelled to add that I believe there were instances in which someone would write a letter scathingly critical of and even insulting to the recipient, yet still sign it, "your humble and obedient servant." --James Boswell, author of The Dead Sea Gospel
The phrase "your servant" is first recorded in English in the 15th century:
P2. your servant.
a. Used formulaically when ending a formal letter, to refer to oneself as the author when addressing a patron in the dedication of a book, etc. Also frequently with modifying adjective, as your humble, obedient, etc., servant; in this form later also used more generally in other contexts, as an elaborate or self-deprecating way to refer to oneself.
1438 in O. T. Bruce Liber Cartarum Prioratus St. Andree (1841) 430 Rycht worschipfull lord and derast maistir Jamys of Kyninmond of that ilke yhoure humble seruand rycht mekly besekis yhoure hee lordschip that [etc.].
?1444 J. Gresham in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 14 Wretyn right simply... By your most symple seruaunt Jamys Gresham.
1474 W. Caxton tr. Game & Playe of Chesse (1883) Ded. 1 Your most humble servant william Caxton amonge other of your seruantes sendes unto yow peas.
Why this form was adopted seems to be lost in the mists of time, but it could simply be a fashion.