I'm aware of this answer:

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.)

But I still don't understand why these words weren't regarded as disingenuous?

  1. The Founding Fathers belonged to an elite social class, and weren't 'servants'. Why not write something politically correct, less classist like 'Acquaintance'?

  2. 'most humble/obedient' is too bombastic. The writer must know that everyone else closes with this adjectival phrase, and the writer logically can't be 'most obedient'; so now the writer redoubled his insincerity.

Examples. You can skip the following.

From Benjamin Franklin to the Earl of Loudoun, 3 March 1757

But I shall now wait your Lordship’s Arrival here, that if in any thing I can be of Service, I may be ready to obey your Lordship’s Commands; being, with the sincerest Respect and Attachment, My Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient and most humble Servant

B Franklin

From John Adams to the Marquis of Carmarthen, 28 May 1785

With great Respect, I have the Honour / to be, my Lord, your Lordships / most obedient and most / humble Servant

John Adams.—

From Thomas Jefferson to Lord Wycombe, 25 July 1789

I have the honour to be with sentiments of the most perfect respect and esteem, your Lordship’s most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

From George Washington to the Earl of Buchan, 1 May 1792

With sentiments of the truest esteem & consideration I remain, Your Lordships Most Obedient Servan⟨t⟩

Go: Washington

  • 5
    You might equally well ask why it is not 'phony' or 'overblown' to shake hands - indicating a commitment never to draw swords against one another. Societal mores are dictated largely by convention, and until someone decides that they need modernising they tend to stay the same.
    – WS2
    Sep 19, 2018 at 5:54
  • 2
    The wording "most obedient servant" was actually a less florid version of the even more obsequious "most obliged and obedient humble servant"—a wording that was common enough in the period from 1750 to 1850 to enable Ngram to generate a frequency graph for it.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 19, 2018 at 5:57
  • 3
    It doesn't mean 'domestic servant', it's just a conventional phrase indicating the formal tone of the letter. In French it's still the custom to use a flowery expression to end a business letter. www.french-linguistics.co.uk/phrase_book/en/letters_closures.html Sep 19, 2018 at 7:58
  • In France it is, even today, in formal correspondence, not unknown to see closing expressions like "Je vous prie, monsieur/madame, de bien agréer mes salutations les plus distinguées" meaning something like "I beg you to accept, sir/madam, my most profound salutations".
    – WS2
    Sep 23, 2018 at 12:17
  • @WS2 Thanks. I'm aware of the standard French closing, but it feels less phony, somehow? The equivalent of "obedient" isn't used?
    – user50720
    Sep 25, 2018 at 3:39

1 Answer 1


No, that's the appropriate level of formality for letters of that time. In fact, you would even sign letters to inferiors with "your servant":

The Subscription closes the Letter and in writing to Superiors should be conceived in very respectful Terms as 'Your most humble and most obedient Servant or Your most obliged and humble Servants.' To Equals 'Your humble and affectionate Servant or Your Friend and humble Servants.' To Inferiors 'Your Servant or ready to do you a Service.'
The Art of Letter-Writing, Divided Into Two Parts. The First, Containing Rules and Directions for Writing Letters ... the Second, a Collection of Letters on the Most Interesting Occasions in Life, Etc, 1762

"Servant" in this sense dates back at least as far as 1474, so it was fairly well established by that point.

As for whether it sounded phony or not, it's probably not that different from starting a letter with "dear" to a person you've never met (or to an unknown person, as in "dear sir or ma'am").


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