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John Steele Gordon: Obama isn't just our first black president. He's the first who doesn't come from Northwest Europe.

[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

Inaugurations of a new president are usually a blast. Ordinary people who supported the victorious candidate want to celebrate, while those acceding to real power are understandably in an upbeat mood. After all, as James Madison explained in the Federalist Papers, "Men love Power." And in Washington, D.C., that goes double.

But the inauguration of Barack Obama is shaping up as something far more than just a celebration of a new president taking office. Estimates of those attending range upwards of four million. Hotel rooms have been booked for months. The parties, official and unofficial, will be numberless. The District of Columbia City Council has voted to let bars stay open until five in the morning.

The reason, perhaps, is that there is a profound sense that this presidential transition will not be an ordinary one but rather a watershed moment in the history of the country.

Mr. Obama will be the country's first African-American president, but he is actually far more than that. He will be the first president whose ethnic identity is not linked to the extreme northwest corner of Europe. All 42 men who have been president of the United States up to now were either British, Irish or Dutch in ancestry -- except Dwight Eisenhower, whose ancestors came from the Saarland, in Germany, which borders the Low Countries. Most of the 42 had colonial ancestors (including Eisenhower, whose antecedents came to Pennsylvania in 1741), and would therefore qualify as WASPs, to use the not-altogether-complimentary -- or accurate -- acronym coined in the 1960s.

So the inauguration of Mr. Obama is being seen, rightly, as a moment in American history when the idea that "Anyone can grow up to be president" is becoming more true than it had been previously. American democracy is being significantly deepened and widened by his accession to the presidency.

This is the second time in American history that this has happened and there was quite a party the first time as well.

The first six presidents of the United States had all come from Virginia or Massachusetts, and all had been from the upper reaches of society. Of the six, all but George Washington had attended college, a very rare level of education in those days.

But Andrew Jackson was from a very different background. While four of the six previous presidents had ancestries that can be traced back to European royalty, Jackson's can be traced only as far as a great grandfather in impoverished northern Ireland. His parents had immigrated from there to the South Carolina frontier a few years before Jackson was born in 1767. Orphaned by the time he was 14, his education was spotty at best, although he read law in a lawyer's office and was admitted to the bar when he was 20 years old....

Jackson's journey from Nashville to Washington took three weeks, and everywhere along the route he was greeted by large crowds. At Pittsburgh, where he switched from steamboat to carriage, the crowd was so great that it took him nearly an hour to make his way from the dock to his hotel, a mere quarter mile away.

On Inauguration Day, Washington was jammed with people. "I never saw such a crowd before," wrote Daniel Webster. "Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson." With hotel rooms unavailable even at triple the normal rates, people slept on tavern floors and even in open fields. They reminded some, unhappy at Jackson's election, of the "inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome."

The inauguration ceremony, which previously had usually been held indoors before invited guests, was to take place, for the first time, on the East Front of the Capitol Building, in order to accommodate the crowds. The open area in front of the Capitol was packed by 10 a.m. and the crowd became unruly, trying to swarm up the steps to the portico where the ceremony would be held. A ship's cable was stretched across the stairs to hold them back. Francis Scott Key, an eyewitness, was deeply moved. "It is beautiful," he wrote. "It is sublime!"...
Read entire article at WSJ