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Book Review: The Greatest Speech Ever

On Wednesday November 18, 1863, a tired President Abraham Lincoln boarded a special train bound for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, destined to keep a commitment he had made to say a few words at the dedication of a new cemetery for those who had fallen at the epic battle which had been fought there just over four months ago. Worn down from his duties as a wartime president and concerned about a very sick child back home in Washington, Lincoln dutifully attended to his task. Little did anyone expect that Lincoln's brief oration of less than three minutes would become perhaps the most famous speech in American history, words that would be quoted for generations to come. In The Greatest Speech Ever: The Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Gettysburg Address, the wonderfully researched and passionately composed work written for release on the speech's sesquicentennial, Judge James L. Cotton Jr. retraces Lincoln's steps and reconstructs the event that made the words "four score and seven years ago" destined for immortality.


The author gathers information from a variety of sources, including many eyewitness accounts, in order to take the reader back to this important event, giving an intricate account not only of the speech itself, but also of Lincoln's journey from Washington, the composition of his remarks, his arrival at Gettysburg, the events in the home where Lincoln was residing, an earlier gaffe Lincoln made in making some impromptu remarks on route, how the locals and visitors behaved before, during and after the event, and the ceremonies following Lincoln's speech. Judge Cotton introduces the reader to many of the fascinating characters collateral to the event including Lincoln's host David Wills, Marshall Ward Hill Lamon who served both as Lincoln's bodyguard and as emcee of the ceremonies, William Saunders who designed the cemetery, and Edward Everett, the great orator whose lengthy oration preceded Lincoln on the program, but who today is seen as a footnote to the story. Cotton also describes the critical reception that Lincoln's speech received at the time, both good and bad. He dispels many of the myths surrounding the Gettysburg Address and does so convincingly with supporting evidence. The book also tells the story of Lincoln's upbringing and the events in his life that made him the great man he became. Cotton also makes a convincing argument for which of the various surviving versions of the address was the one that Lincoln actually delivered. In an epilogue, the author lets the reader in on how his passion for Lincoln and for the Gettysburg Address developed.

Reading Judge Cotton's account is wonderful because it comes as close as possible to placing the reader at the scene of this historic event. Where there is a conflict in versions of what took place, Judge Cotton ably makes the case for which is the more probable account. This book has the added dimension of providing the reader with insight into Lincoln's thoughts, but also provides the reader with a reasonable basis for the author's speculation.

In a departure from standard academic fare, the author uses many folksy euphemisms and similes to tell this story. These work to reinforce the concept that history is not the property of an elite group of pedants, it belongs to everyone and it is something to be enjoyed by all. It is the combination of excellent research, and a passionate but objective author who opens the pages of history for readers to enjoy that makes this book such a pleasure to read, especially for anyone with an interest in Abraham Lincoln ranging from slight to great.

When I was in Nashville last week, I met the author at The Southern Festival of Books, which was taking place across the street from my hotel, near the Tennessee State House. Judge Cotton exhibits the same enthusiasm in person that he displays in his writing. He is a very friendly man with a love of all things Lincoln and someone who understands that history is not the property of an academic elite, but rather something to be enjoyed by everyone. I instantly liked the man, but I believe that I would have enjoyed this book just as much if I had not had the pleasure of meeting him.

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