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Why Democrats Are Donkeys and Republicans Are Elephants

By: Sam Abramson  | 

The Democratic Donkey

Thomas nast cartoon
In Thomas Nast's first cartoon featuring a donkey, the donkey represents the Copperhead Press kicking a dead lion that represents Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's deceased secretary of war.
Library of Congress

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. First, Republican and Democrat meant very different things in the 19th century than they do today (see sidebar). Nast despised a group of Northern Democrats known as "Copperheads." Copperheads opposed the Civil War from the start, and 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 Jan. 15, 1870, Nast drew a donkey kicking a dead lion. He branded the donkey as the Copperhead Press and the lion as Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham 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. He articulated with this simple drawing his belief that the Copperheads were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln's administration. Using a donkey — or jackass — was an obvious way to belittle the Democrats.

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Nast continued to use the donkey as a symbol for Democratic organizations. He next used its image 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. Included among the animals is a huge, bumbling elephant labeled "the Republican Vote."

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, lies 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.