Party platforms evolve, party ideals even flip-flop, but for over 100 years, the Democrats have been represented by a donkey and Republicans have been represented by an elephant. Interestingly enough, the Democrats have never officially declared the donkey their symbol (Republicans, on the other hand, have fully embraced the elephant and adopted it as their official symbol). But how did the political parties get their animal symbols? A cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nast popularized the associations in the press and therefore among the general public. However, the Democratic association to the donkey actually began with Democratic president Andrew Jackson.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast was the first to publish and popularize the donkey and the elephant. He was working for Harper’s magazine from 1862-1886, in a time when political cartoons had far more power than they do today. During this time period, political cartoons were popularly read, and often had the power to sway undecided votes and change opinions of the public at large. Nast was a master of this influential art, and was also a fiercely loyal Republican. In fact, it’s said that President Lincoln referred to Nast as his “best recruiting general” during his re-election campaign. He was a particularly adamant opponent of the Northern Democrats, known as Copperheads.
It was the cartoon Nast published on January 15, 1870 that forever linked the donkey to the Democratic party. The cartoon depicted a donkey, representing the Copperhead press, kicking a dead lion, which represented President Lincoln’s recently deceased press secretary, E.M. Stanton. With this simple but artfully rendered statement, Nast articulated his belief that the Copperheads were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln’s administration.
At the time, a donkey had no ties to a political party. It was, however, commonly tied to the term “jackass.” Therefore, the choice of a donkey was clearly understood as commentary intended to disparage the Democrats. This was only the first time that Nast implemented this analogy. Nast continued to use the donkey as a stand-in for Democratic organizations, and the popularity of his cartoons through 1880s ensured that the party remained inextricably tied to jackasses. However, although Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing this association, he was not the first to use it as a representation of the Democratic party.
Andrew Jackson the Jackass
In 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president, his opponents were fond of referring to him as a jackass. The first representation of this occurred in a cartoon showing Jackson as a rowdy jackass trampling a clutch of chicks while a fox—representing Jackson’s running mate, Martin Van Buren—stalked the hen. Rather than shy away from the cartoon and its implications, Jackson decided to embrace it and face it head-on. He went so far as to use the donkey as a symbol of his campaign, branding it as steadfast, determined, and willful rather than slow, stubborn, and obstinate. The analogy stuck. Throughout his presidency, the symbol remained associated with Jackson and, although to a lesser extent, the Democratic party as a whole. However, once Jackson left office, the association was largely forgotten until Nast revived it more than 30 years later.
So where does the elephant play into all of this? While elephants were not as well-known symbols as a donkey representing a jackass, they were well known for two things: the circus and war. During the Civil War, “seeing the elephant” became a universal euphemism for seeing combat and, more broadly, losing one’s innocence, and elephants themselves were commonly the stars and literal standard bearers of circuses throughout the country. Both associations came into play in a pro-Lincoln circular used to tout his 1864 reelection. The comic showed an elephant bearing a pennant reading “The Elephant Is Coming” and a blanket inscribed, more cryptically, “Penn[sylvani]a 20,000”—Lincoln’s victory margin in that swing state. However, this comic was a mere precursor to Nast’s elephant representations, which would secure the association indelibly.
In 1874, in yet another scathing cartoon, Nast represented the Democratic press as a donkey in lion’s clothing, expressing his beliefs that the media were acting as fear mongers as they spread rumors of Grant running for a third term; this was legal at the time but frowned upon, and largely seen as a threat of a dictatorship. An elephant, labeled as representing the Republican vote, was running, frightened, towards a pit of chaos and inflation (Nast did not shy away from critiquing his own party when it was necessary). He would consistently continue to use the elephant as a Republican symbol going forward, in many positive representations as well as negative ones. In one 1876 cartoon, he represented the Republican vote with an elephant yet again, with Uncle Sam riding high on its back and a tiger, representing the Democrats, trampled beneath its feet.
Embracing the Caricatures
Like Andrew Jackson, the Republican party would eventually embrace the caricature, adopting the elephant as their official symbol. The Democrats, however, never officially adopted the donkey as a symbol. However, when you walk into a Democratic event there are plenty of supporters sporting donkey paraphernalia.
- Political Animals: Republican Elephants and Democratic Donkeys – Smithsonian
- Why the Democrats and Republicans Should Ditch the Donkey and Elephant – Observer
- Why Democrats are donkeys and Republicans are elephants – CNN
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