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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Letter-Writing: The Complimentary Closing

In historical periods when rapid transportation and communication were not available, writing letters was a critical method for personal and business communication. The numerous letters in the James Madison Papers provide evidence of the importance of correspondence in Madison's life, particularly his life as a political thinker and leader.

Most letters written during the time in which Madison lived were written in a formal style. They often began with an acknowledgment of the addressee's most recent letter to the writer and closed with a complimentary closing. A complimentary closing is a word or phrase that expresses some regard for the addressee and signals the end of the letter. The words or phrases selected depend how well the letter-writer knows the addressee and the type of relationship the two have. While complimentary closings today tend to be rather brief (Cordially, Sincerely, With regards, etc.), in Madison's time they were somewhat longer.

Below are the complimentary closings from several letters written by Madison.

envelope from George Luckey to James Madison, April 25, 1813

George Luckey to James Madison, April 25, 1813. Note how the envelope is addressed. How can you explain changes from the way you would expect a letter to be addressed to the President today?

Locate others and consider the style and tone of the closings carefully.

  • Which do you think were used in letters to family members or friends? To important public officials? To political adversaries? To groups (rather than individuals)?
  • Which do you think show the most respect? Affection? What words or phrases convey these feelings?
  • Find out to whom the letters were written. How accurate were your predictions? What does this suggest about how the meaning of language changes or remains stable over time?
  • In general, how has the style of closings changed since the late 18th and early 19th centuries?