The elephant and the donkey have long been the mascots of America’s major political parties.
The symbols are so widespread that the icons need no explanation in political contexts. We all know what they mean.
And a little insult from the early nineteenth century started it all.
Mental Floss explains:
During Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential campaign, his political opponents labeled him a “jackass.” Stubborn as he was, Jackson co-opted the insult and began putting a donkey on his election posters.
For the rest of his career and even into his retirement, newspapers and cartoonists continued to represent Jackson either as a stubborn ass or struggling to control one.
Almost 40 years later, the donkey was used to represent not just Jackson, but a larger group of Democrats. In 1870, Thomas Nast, the German-born political cartoonist who gave us the versions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam we know today, drew a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.” The donkey was a stand-in for “Copperhead Democrats” (the Northern Democrats that opposed the Civil War), and the lion represented Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased Secretary of War. Nast thought of the Copperheads as anti-Union and believed the Democratic press’s treatment of Stanton was disrespectful.
Nast’s donkey solidified an already established caricature in the minds of the American public, and the donkey was well on its way to being the instantly recognizable symbol of the Democratic Party.
But Nast wasn’t done leaving his impression on the future of political symbolism. Just four years after his “Live Jackass” doodle, Nast created another political cartoon which drew parallels to his earlier work.
Once more, Nast used an animal to represent a political party. This time, he set his sights on Republicans.
Nast knew that the Democrats would already be recognized by the donkey, which also represented liberal magazine “the Herald” and other leftist news sources. But he decided to use an elephant for Republicans. In “The Third Term Panic,” the Republican elephant was Nast’s own invention.
In the drawing, a donkey, dressed as a lion, terrorizes several zoo animals. One of those scared animals is the elephant, labeled “The Republican Vote.”
Mental Floss continues:
The cartoon, titled “The Third Term Panic,” showed a donkey (representing the Herald and the Democratic press) wearing a lion’s skin (labeled “Caesarism”) in order to frighten a group of animals. Among those animals are an elephant (labeled “Republican Vote” and awkwardly fleeing towards a pit labeled “Inflation” and “Chaos”) and a fox (labeled “Democrats” and backing away from the pit that the elephant is about to fall into).
After Republicans lost the House of Representatives that November, Nast used the elephant once more, caught and demobilized by the donkey’s trap.
Nast was obviously a Republican, but he was frustrated with Democratic press scare tactics influencing election outcomes.
Nast used his cartoons to criticize leftist media for scaring American voters into voting Democrat. The issues Nast wanted to bring to the public eye are still of great importance today, in a country where Nast’s lasting impact is easily seen.