Donkeys V. Elephants: The Story of Party Mascots

Have you ever wondered why the Democratic Party is represented by a Donkey? Or why the Republican Party is represented by an elephant? Or have you ever wondered why our mainstream political parties even have mascots?

There is actual historical reasoning for all of this. Albeit not necessarily good reasoning…but something that shouldn’t be surprising with our modern political climate.

The Donkey and the Elephant first appeared in the mid-19th century, and were created by Thomas Nast. Nast was a cartoonist working for Harper’s Magazine from 1862-1886. In a time before detestable negative ad campaigns ran on TV and vile social media posts filled our screens, cartoons in newspapers were the relevant medium. And Thomas Nast was the Roger Stone of cartooning.

Because cartoons were so popular, and really the only form of picture campaigning..they actually held the true power of persuasion amongst undecided voters.

However, in the interest of fairness, Nast was also considered to be a vindictive and fiercely loyal member of the Republican Party. At one point, President Lincoln referred to Nast as his “best recruiting general” during his re-election campaign.

On January 15, 1870, Nast published the cartoon that would forever link the Democratic party to the Donkey.

Here’s the why: Nast was a vocal opponent of a group of Northern Democrats called the “Copperheads.” The Copperheads opposed the Civil War effort. Nast believed that in their opposition they were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln. So, he drew a depiction of a Donkey. Pardon the language here — but the Donkey was meant to represent a jackass. In the depiction, the donkey was kicking a lion. The lion was meant to represent the recently deceased E.M. Stanton who served as President Lincoln’s Press Secretary.

In short, the Donkey was a symbol used to disparage the Democratic party.

Nast would continue to use this Donkey in his future drawings soon making it inextricably tied to the democrats.

However, Nast’s depiction wasn’t the first time this relation was made. He merely popularized the drawing. In 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president, his opponents were fond of referring to him in this way. However, Jackson would embrace the symbol. He rebranded the donkey as a steadfast, determined, and willful beast. Rather than a wrong-headed, slow, and obstinate distraction.

Leave it to the founder of the party I suppose.

Again, in 1874, Nast represented the Democratic press as a donkey in lions clothing. He intended to argue that the media were acting as fear mongers in propagating the idea that Ulysses S. Grant would be a dictator.

In Nast’s depiction, the elephant was representing the Republican voters. The exact rationale behind the elephant is still unclear — but most believe that the elephant was meant to represent a large and powerful creature. But, one that is easily frightened and becomes careless when he is.

Some historians have also argued that the elephant was inspired by the old phrase “seeing the elephant” which was a reference to war and potentially a reminder of Union victory.

Through the political bickering, partisan shifts, and ideological re-structuring, much has changed since Nast’s drawings. But, one thing has remained the same…the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant.

Fun Side Notes:
Nast is well noted for two other drawings beyond these. First, he drew the Tammany Tiger which he featured in an 1871 publication of Harper’s Weekly. It was meant to attack New York’s William “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall–his corrupt political machine. Secondly, he is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus.

Thanks for the read. I hope you enjoyed!

-History Hero

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