The donkey and elephant have long represented the Democratic and Republican Parties. But how did they choose them? Did they spend months deliberating? Was a law passed? Was there a public vote? Actually neither party set out to find an icon. The acceptance of these symbols grew out of negative comments and political cartoons. Here’s how it happened.
The Democratic Party’s first association with the donkey came about during the 1828 campaign of Democrat Andrew Jackson. Running on a populist platform (by the people, for the people) and using a slogan of “Let the People Rule,” Jackson’s opponents referred to him as a jackass (donkey). Much to their chagrin, Jackson incorporated the jackass into his campaign posters. During Jackson’s presidency the donkey was used to symbolize his stubbornness by his opponents.
After Andrew Jackson left office, political cartoonists furthered the Democrat and donkey connection. An 1837 cartoon depicted Jackson leading a donkey which 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 earliest connection of the elephant to the Republican Party was an illustration in an 1864 Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign newspaper, Father Abraham. It showed an elephant holding a banner and celebrating Union victories. During the Civil War, “seeing the elephant” was slang for engaging in combat so the elephant was a logical choice to represent successful battles.
The elephant appeared again in an 1872 issue of Harper’s Weekly where it depicted Liberal Republicans.
For whatever reason, political cartoonists and the public did not yet associate the elephant with the Republican Party.
THOMAS NAST, Political Cartoonist
Thomas Nast is widely 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, it was his 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon entitled “Third Term Panic” (pictured below) that solidified the use of symbols.
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.” After this cartoon appeared, Nast used the elephant again and again to represent the “Republican Vote.” Eventually the “Vote” fell away and the elephant and Republican Party became synonymous.
It’s amazing to think that an insult, a war phrase, and dry humor influenced the symbols which came to represent two of the most powerful political parties in the world.
Below are two additional cartoons that include the donkey and elephant created by Thomas Nast, both of which were featured on the cover of Harper's Weekly.