Donkeys and Elephants
By, Charlie Williamson
Most Americans know that the symbol for the Democratic Party is the donkey and that the symbol for the Republican Party (Grand Old Party) is the elephant. Although these symbols have become a staple in our modern day political diet, most people don’t know that these enduring symbols arose out of early “shade throwing.” Let’s take a journey back to the days of early American politics and explore the origins of these dueling animals.
What do the donkey and the elephant actually represent? Modern day politicians will tell you that the donkey represents intelligence and bravery, whereas the elephant represents strength and dignity. But, back in the day these animals had an entirely different symbolism. The presidential election of 1828 between Democrat Andrew Jackson and Republican John Quincy Adams was one of the dirtiest in American history. Adams attacked Jackson’s military record while Jackson accused Adams of lacking “moral restraint.” Can you imagine how great this would have been on RuPaul’s Drag Race today?
Now here’s how the donkey came into play. Jackson’s opponents had a fondness for calling him a “jackass,” comparing him to a stupid, dumb donkey. Rather than let this insult get the best of him, Jackson was actually amused by the comparison. He even began featuring an image of a donkey in his campaign materials. Turning the initially negative comparison into something positive, Jackson pointed out that a jackass has, “persistence, loyalty and the ability to carry a heavy load.” Moreover, because the donkey represented simple values and humble beginnings, Jackson used it to show that he represented the common man. Jackson went on to defeat Adams and the donkey faded into the background until the 1870’s.
The elephant didn’t make its political debut until 1864. The term “seeing the elephant” was a term used by soldiers during the Civil War when engaging in combat. The elephant first appeared in a political cartoon featured in the pro-Lincoln newspaper, Father Abraham, during his presidential campaign as a symbolic way to celebrate Union victories in the war. It was around this time that Thomas Nast was rising to fame as wartime illustrator for Harpers Weekly. Eventually, Nast began using images of the elephant and donkey in his political cartoons to represent the Republican and Democratic parties and, in so doing, made political history.
Considered the father of the modern political cartoon, Nast first used the donkey in 1870 in his cartoon “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” to represent the “Copperhead Democrats,” a faction of the northern democrats. A year later Nast used an elephant to signify the Republican Party in his cartoon “Third Party Panic,” which attacked the Republicans’ intra-party fighting. Over the years, Nast continued using thesds
e images in his cartoons to represent the nation’s two major political parties. By the 1880’s, cartoonists across the country were using the donkey and the elephant to represent the Democratic and Republican parties. Their symbolism became so powerful in American politics that eventually the political parties embraced the animals as their own. The rest, as they say, is history.