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Why are a donkey and an elephant the symbols of the Democratic and Republican Parties?


The Republican Elephant
Nast's famous "Third Term Panic" cartoon was his first use of an elephant to represent the Republican Party. A donkey in lion's skin (center) scares off other animals. Among them is the elephant (top left), representing the Republican vote.
Nast's famous "Third Term Panic" cartoon was his first use of an elephant to represent the Republican Party. A donkey in lion's skin (center) scares off other animals. Among them is the elephant (top left), representing the Republican vote.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Just like the donkey, the elephant became a popular symbol through the political cartoons of Thomas Nast. But Nast had different feelings toward the elephant -- it represented the party he'd idolized since his emergence on the New York political scene. Behind his renderings lay strong, Republican convictions. But Nast became frustrated with Republicans in the 1870s, when he felt the party had strayed from social liberalism. That frustration, in part, would spawn the Republican elephant image.

The elephant had been used twice before as a political symbol, once in a piece of 1864 Lincoln campaign literature and again in 1872 by Harper's. Nast's first use appeared in the same 1874 "Third Term Panic" cartoon that featured a disguised donkey chasing frightened animals. An elephant bearing the title of "Republican Vote" bounded clumsily towards a pit labeled "Inflation" and "Chaos." The elephant represented the effects of Copperhead Democrat scare tactics, as well as the confused behemoth that Nast felt many Republican voters and publications had become.

After the "Third Term Panic" cartoon, Nast continued using the elephant to represent Republicans. An April 1876 cartoon entitled "The Political Situation" showed a confused Uncle Sam, labeled "The Vote of the People," atop a two-headed elephant forced to decide between the "Democratic Road" and the "Republican Road." Another cartoon released shortly before the 1876 presidential election showed a hulking Republican elephant stomping on a Democratic tiger.

Nast's first cartoon that used the elephant to represent the Republican Party as a whole came in March 1877. On the heels of the extremely controversial presidential election, he depicted a bruised and battered elephant crouched at a Democratic Party tombstone. The ailing elephant indicated Nast's belief that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes' victory despite losing the popular vote was a bitter, damaging one. In an 1884 cartoon, Nast even deemed it "The Sacred Elephant," the nostalgic symbol of the party he had once loved. Unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party eventually adopted the elephant as its official symbol.

Nast introduced the donkey and the elephant as national political symbols, but there is no definitive answer as to why they remain so popular nearly 140 years later. Perhaps the best explanation is the influence of Nast himself. He was a rare political cartoonist whose work influenced the politics of his era. Proof of this lies in the words of famous men of the times. Lincoln called Nast his "best recruiting sergeant" for the 1864 reelection campaign [source: OSU]. Grant had similar feelings on his 1868 election, heaping praise on "the pencil of Nast." Mark Twain said that Nast had "won a prodigious victory for Grant -- I mean, for civilization and progress" [source: Keller].

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