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

With the donkeys on the right and the elephants on the left, these sculptures are a bit out of place symbolically.
With the donkeys on the right and the elephants on the left, these sculptures are a bit out of place symbolically.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the Democratic Party gathers for its 2008 convention in Denver, Colo., a donkey named Mordecai will give new meaning to the term "political animal." Mordecai is slated to be the first official live mascot in the history of the Democratic Party. The "official 'asscot," as his owner Curtis Imrie has called him, won't deliver an address to the party like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will. But Democrats hope his presence in the Mile High City will provide a light-hearted moment or two at the Democratic National Convention (DNC).

There's no word on whether the Republican Party will provide a live counterpart of its animal emblem, the elephant, for its September convention in Minneapolis, Minn. But Mordecai's presence at the DNC raises a sensible question. Just where did these symbols come from? Why do the Democrats choose to affiliate themselves with an oft-ridiculed member of the horse family? And how did the Republicans, the party of social and fiscal conservatism, come to be represented by an ivory-tusked pachyderm?

The origins of these political images lie in the mind of a German-born political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, whose drawings also helped create modern images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus. Nast moved to New York City when he was six years old and displayed artistic ability at an early age. Because he grew up in New York's thriving society, he worked his political and social knowledge into his artwork.

Nast joined the staff of Harper's Weekly in 1862. By the time he left in 1886, he had not only stamped the elephant and donkey as political party symbols, he'd also become one of the most influential cartoonists in American history. By the time he used the donkey as a Democratic Party symbol, Nast was already a household name. He had ascended to fame with cartoons that depicted the battlefield horrors of the Civil War and helped bring down the Boss Tweed ring, a group of corrupt New York politicians. Read on to learn how Nast's fame led to today's famous symbols.

The Democratic Donkey

In Nast's first cartoon featuring a donkey, the donkey represents the Copperhead Press. It kicks a dead lion that represents the deceased Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war.
In Nast's first cartoon featuring a donkey, the donkey represents the Copperhead Press. It kicks a dead lion that represents the deceased Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

To understand the origin of the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic Party, you need to know a little about the politics of Thomas Nast's time. In particular, Nast despised the Copperhead Democrats. Copperheads were Northern Democrats who had opposed the Civil War from the start. Nast thought of them as anti-Union racists who had become far too prominent and influential in the North.

In his first cartoon featuring the donkey, which was published in 1870, Nast penned the animal kicking a dead lion. He branded the donkey as the Copperhead Press and the lion as Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, who had just died. The cartoon was an unflattering take on a Democratic press whose lingering anti-war beliefs dishonored Stanton in Nast's mind.

Nast's next use of the donkey appeared in an 1874 cartoon reacting to Democratic cries of Caesarism against Republican President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was thought to be seeking a third term in office, and Democrats compared him to Julius Caesar, painting him as a greedy dictator trying to wield imperial power. Nast disagreed with these accusations. In his Nov. 7, 1874 cartoon, titled "Third Term Panic," he illustrated the Democratic press, specifically the New York Herald, as a donkey dressed in lion's skin. The donkey, labeled Caesarism, was scaring other animals off into chaos. The cartoon represented what Nast felt were fear mongering Democratic media -- they appeared as a ferocious predator but were actually foolish and harmless in their panic.

Despite the fact that Nast's donkey was another swipe at specific members of the Democratic press, not the party as a whole, the symbol remained synonymous with Democrats. The cartoonist's continued use of the symbol included an 1879 cartoon in which a leading Democratic Presidential candidate was grabbing a donkey labeled "Democratic Party" by the tail. The candidate was trying to prevent the donkey from hurtling into a pit labeled "financial chaos." This was a commentary on the gold standard and inflation on the eve of the 1880 election. By the 1880s, Nast's use of the donkey had made it a national symbol for Democrats, although the Democratic Party never adopted the animal as its symbol.

In the cartoon in which a politician had the Democratic donkey by the tail, Nast's other famous political symbol, the Republican elephant, lay wounded and sluggish in the background. While the Democratic donkey was generally the symbol of a party of braying fools in Nast's eyes, the Republican elephant was another story. It symbolized a party that had departed from its roots in social liberalism, which Nast favored. Read on to find out about Nast's use of the elephant.

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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Sources

  • The Democratic Party "History of the Democratic Donkey." Unknown date created. March 11, 2008. http://www.democrats.org/a/2005/06/history_of_the.php
  • Keller, Morton. "The World of Thomas Nast." March 11, 2008. http://cartoons.osu.edu/nast/keller_web.htm
  • Nast, Thomas. "Stranger Things Have Happened." Dec. 27, 1879. March 11, 2008. http://www.cyberbee.com/nast/nast.jpg
  • The New York Times. "The Story of the Elephant and Donkey…." Aug. 2, 1908. March 11, 2008. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res= 9D07EFDB113EE033A25751C0A96E9C946997D6CF
  • C-Span.org Capitol Questions. "How did Republicans pick the elephant, and Democrats the donkey, to represent their parties?" Sep. 5, 2000. March 11, 2008. http://www.c-span.org/questions/week174.htm
  • Harp Week Cartoon of the Day. "The Third Term Panic." Nov. 7, 2003. March 11, 2008. http://www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp? Year=2003&Month=November&Date=7
  • BBC News. "Elephant, Republican." Mar. 28, 2000. March 11, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/americas/2000/us_elections/glossary/e-f/689757.stm

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