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article imageHow we adopted the donkey and the elephant as political symbols

By Karen Graham     Jan 15, 2021 in Politics
The donkey and elephant have long represented the Democratic and Republican parties, even though neither party was looking for a mascot. These symbols grew out of negative comments, insults, and political cartoons.
Looking at our history, political parties in America have always been at odds with one another, just like they are today over any number of issues that have political relevance to the electorate. Anyone, regardless of how interested in politics they may be, knows Republicans are represented by the elephant and Democrats by the donkey.
But neither party convened a meeting to choose these mascots, and no one voted on them. To find the origins of the iconic symbols of the nation's biggest parties, we have to look back 189 years to the first Democrat to become commander-in-chief, Andrew Jackson, and his 1828 presidential campaign.
Jackson ran against the Democratic-Republican Party President John Quincy Adams, sounding defeating Adams by 56 percent of the popular vote and 68 percent of the electoral vote. Jackson had a populist platform and railed against elites who he claimed were corrupting American democracy.
Police officers guard the statue of former US President Andrew Jackson just outside the White House ...
Police officers guard the statue of former US President Andrew Jackson just outside the White House after protesters tried to topple it
The campaign was heavily personal. As was the custom at the time, neither candidate personally campaigned, relying on supporters to organize campaign events. This led to both candidates being attacked in the press.
Jackson was labeled a "slave trader," while pamphlets were circulated to attack Jackson, one of which revealed his order to execute soldiers at the Battle of New Orleans. Another pamphlet depicted him engaging in cannibalism by eating the bodies of American Indians killed in battle.
The Democratic Donkey first used in satire
To say the least, both Jackson and Adams were brutally assaulted in the press and were favorites of political cartoonists at the time. Jackson’s opponents referred to him as a "jackass," the more derogatory term for a donkey because of his stubbornness with his opponents,
However, he grew to like the name and began using it in his campaign posters to show his determination. One of the first images to play on Jackson's nickname is this cartoon from 1833, entitled "Let Every One Take Care of Himself."
 Let Every One Take Care of Himself  by Anthony Imbert  circa 1833.
"Let Every One Take Care of Himself" by Anthony Imbert, circa 1833.
LOC - Digital ID: (digital file from b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a08876
The cartoon satirizes Jackson's attempts to get the Bank of the United States to redistribute funds to "branch" banks in various states. In the image, the president is depicted as an ass, who causes chaos by galloping into a group of chicks, representing the US financial system.
An 1837 cartoon depicted Jackson leading a donkey that refused to follow, portraying that Democrats would not be led by the previous president. The habit of associating the donkey and the Democratic Party had begun.
The Republican elephant makes its appearance
Possibly the earliest reference to the Republican elephant is an illustration in an 1864 Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign newspaper, Father Abraham. Father Abraham depicted an elephant carrying a banner and celebrating Union victories in the war. At the time, the well-known slang phrase “seeing the elephant” meant to engage in combat.
Thomas Nast is also credited with the popular image known to children all around the world - Santa C...
Thomas Nast is also credited with the popular image known to children all around the world - Santa Claus.
Thomas Nast - 1863
Thomas Nast, a German-born political cartoonist, and a Republican is credited with perpetuating the donkey and elephant as symbols for the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Nast first used the donkey in an 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly to represent an anti-war faction with whom he disagreed and in 1871, he used the elephant to alert Republicans that their intra-party fighting was detrimental to the upcoming elections.
However, Nast's “Third Term Panic,” published in Harpers sealed it as far as the elephant becoming a mascot for the Republican party. As Jimmy Stamp writes for, says, “The rationale behind the choice of the elephant is unclear, but Nast may have chosen it as the embodiment of a large and powerful creature, though one that tends to be dangerously careless when frightened.
“Third Term Panic” by Thomas Nast that solidified the use of symbols.
“Third Term Panic” by Thomas Nast that solidified the use of symbols.
"The Third-Term Panic", by Thomas Nast, originally published in en:Harper's Magazine 7 November 1874
Republican Ulysses Grant had been president for two terms and was contemplating a third (it wasn’t until 1951 when the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms). The cartoon depicted a donkey wearing a lion’s skin emblazoned with the words “Caesarism” (an undemocratic attempt to wield imperial power) frightening away an elephant wearing the words, “Republican Vote.”
From then on, Nast used the elephant as the symbol of the Republican party., It is amazing to think that an insult, a war phrase, and good old-fashioned dry humor influenced the symbols which came to represent two of the most powerful political parties in the world.
More about political symbols, Thomas Nast, political cartoons, Insults, Jackass
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