The surprising story of how a donkey and an elephant came to represent Democrats and the GOP

Donkey and Elephant statues symbolize the US political system in front of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

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Donkey and Elephant statues symbolize the US political system in front of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
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Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

  • The donkey and elephant are widely known as symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties in the US.
  • President Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “jackass” and depicted as a mule by opponents – but he liked the nickname and ran with it.
  • Cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the use of the two animals, with his 1874 cartoon “Third Term Panic” depicting the GOP as an elephant.
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As the 2020 US presidential election nears, badges, election leaflets, and TV graphics showing the image of the elephant and the donkey are everywhere.

As anyone with even a passing interest in US politics knows, the elephant represents the Republican Party and the donkey the Democratic Party.

What is less well known is how the animals came to adopted as symbols for the two biggest political forces in the US.

The story begins 189 years ago, during the presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson, a Democrat.

Jackson a brash, combative populist, whose campaign slogan was “let the people rule.” He pledged to tear down the elites who he claimed were corrupting American democracy.

But to Republican opponents, he was “jackass” – which had more or less the same meaning then as it does now.

Jackson, though, was actually pretty fond of the nickname, and used it during the campaign to cement his reputation for determination.

One of the first images to play on Jackson’s nickname is this cartoon from 1833, entitled “Let Every One Take Care of Himself.”

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“Let Every One Take Care of Himself” by Anthony Imbert, circa 1833.
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Getty Images

It satirises Jackson’s attempts to get the Bank of the United States to redistribute funds to “branch” banks in various states.

In the image the president is depicted as an ass, who causes chaos by galloping into a group of chicks, representing the US financial system.

Jackson was a staunch opponent of the institution that was later to become the Treasury, which he thought was corrupt, and accused of cutting off investment for the westward expansion of the US.

It was German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast – a Republican – who really popularized the two symbols. The GOP elephant made its first appearance in its 1874 cartoon “The Third Term Panic,” which was published in Harper’s Weekly.

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“The Third Term Panic” by Thomas Nast, 1874.
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The cartoon depicts a donkey dressed in lion’s clothing, scaring a group of animals around it. An elephant represents the mighty Republican vote, stumbling into a hidden pit.

Nast was satirizing was what he saw as the panic caused by an editorial in magazine The New York Herald, which accused then-President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican and Civil War general, of “Caesarism.”

The article claimed Grant was attempting to illegally seize more power – like the Roman ruler Julius Caesar – by apparently gearing up to campaign for an unprecedented third term.

Somewhat confusingly, in the image the donkey/lion represents not the Democrats but the New York Herald newspaper. The Democrats are represented as a skittish fox cringing at the edge of the pit.

In other images, Nast did portray Democrats as a donkey, picking up a symbol that had largely been forgotten after Jackson left office.

This 1870 image is called “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion,” and is the first ever to represent the Democrats – rather than a particular Democrat – as a donkey.

The donkey represents Democrat-dominated newspapers in the southern states – nicknamed the Copperhead papers – which opposed the Civil War. They are shown kicking President Abraham Lincoln’s recently-deceased war secretary, EM Stanton.

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“A Live Jack-Ass Kicking a Dead Lion,” by Thomas Nast, 1869.
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Kean Collection/Getty Images

The artist’s own political sympathies played an important role in determining which parties got associated with which animals.

Kat Eschner, a culture journalist, wrote in 2017 for The Smithsonian magazine:

“Nast was also a loyal Republican, which is perhaps why the Democrats got saddled with a jackass as a popular symbol (the party has never officially adopted it), while the Republicans got the large and relatively noble elephant, which the party did officially adopt as a symbol.”

It was an era when cartoonists had a great power, distilling complex political disputes for millions of readers.

Though the details of the disputes may be largely forgotten – the fact that the symbols used in them are in still used to this day are testament to their power.