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.
- With perfect respect and consideration I have the honor to be your most humble and obedient servant
- Accept my friendly respects
- I have the honor to be sir your obedient servant
- With every sentiment of respect and attachment I remain, Dear Sir, your obedient servant
- I pray you Sir to accept assurances of my distinguished esteem and best regards
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?