As far as political symbolism goes, it doesn’t get much more iconic than the symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. The donkey for the republicans and the elephant for the republicans have grown synonymous with the parties themselves. Cartoonist Thomas Nast created the symbols in the 1870’s. To get a better idea of how the symbols came to be, we first need to get a better sense of who Thomas Nast was. Nast was born in Germany and migrated to New York at the age of 6 and quickly began showing strong artistic qualities. He would later go on to work for Harper’s Weekly in 1862, where he incorporated his political knowledge into his artwork. Nast rose to fame by utilizing cartoons to better depict the horrors of the civil war and also helping take down a group of corrupt politicians known as Boss Tweed Ring. Nast’s influence would also lead to the creation of two of America’s most iconic political symbols.
We begin with the donkey or jackass that symbolizes the Democratic Party. In fact the first donkey in a political cartoon was used way before Nast was born in 1837. The opponents of Andrew Jackson used it; they twisted the letters of his last name to make the word jackass. To fully understand how these animals came to become political symbols we need to understand the political climate of Nast’s time. There was a group of Northern Democrats known as the Copperhead Democrats and this group strongly opposed the Civil War from the very beginning. Nast despised this group of democrats and thought of them as anti-union racists. In Nast’s first cartoon he shows a donkey kicking a dead lion. The donkey was branded with the name Copperhead Press, while the lion was branded with the name of Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased secretary of war, Edward M. Stanton. The cartoon was used to show the Democratic press’ anti-war efforts. The donkey would appear again in 1874 while Ulysses S. Grant was the president. Grant was thought be gearing up to run for a third time and the democrats were comparing him to Julius Caesar and regarding him as a dictator. Nast didn’t agree with these accusations and in his 1874 cartoon titled “Third Term Panic” he depicts a donkey in lions skin labeled Caesarism. The donkey in the cartoon was riling up the other animals and this was used to depict the Democratic fear mongering that was happening during this time. This was also the first time the elephant was used in one of Nast’s cartoons. Even though Nast was only singled out a select few of the Democratic Party, the donkey symbol just stuck and remains to this day.
The origin story behind the elephant becoming the Republican Party begins in 1864 in a piece of literature attached to the Lincoln campaign and again used in 1872 by Harper’s Weekly. As previously stated, the first time Nast introduced the elephant in his 1874 cartoon “Third Term Panic”. The elephant was among the animals that the donkey in lions skin was scaring. Nast’s feelings for the elephant contrasted his feelings for the donkey; because the elephant represented the Republicans, which was the party that he adored since arriving in New York City as boy. Nast would later grow frustrated with the Republican Party, because he believed they were drifting away from social liberalism. Nast first depiction of the Republican Party as a whole came in 1877 and it featured a defeated elephant crouching at a Democratic Party tombstone. This came right after a controversial presidential election, the defeated elephant represented Nast’s belief that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ victory despite losing the popular vote was a bitter, damaging victory. Unlike the democratic party, the Republican party actually would later go on to adopt the elephant as their official party mascot.
Although Nast first introduced the animals as political symbols it is unsure why they’ve remained so popular to this day. Now anyone who knows even a little bit about American politics knows that the donkey represents Democrats and the elephant represents the Republicans. These symbols are used even more heavily in the 21st century via all forms of media. Especially now during this current presidential race, you can see the elephant and donkey at any political rally in the form of posters, flyers, pins, etc… The symbols have grown to such prominence that even overseas the symbols can be identified, albeit they’re not as popular as in the United State; they’re still common knowledge of American politics.