Most Americans living in the United States easily recognize the two animals above, and can also link them to the political party each one represents. Have you ever wondered, however, how the donkey came to symbolize the Democratic Party and why the elephant represents the Republican Party? The answer to this question lies in the annals of art history, and to the power of the political cartoon – and one artist in particular, Thomas Nast – in the nineteenth century.
Long before our current media environment of the 24-hour news cycle dominated by hundreds of pundits, critics, blowhards, commentators, bloggers, and trolls, the theater of American presidential politics played out in the many daily and weekly newspapers and magazines in circulation throughout the country. Among the most popular and influential was Harper’s Weekly, which enjoyed a circulation of 200,000 in 1860 and employed the most influential writers and illustrators of the day. The power of Harper’s Weekly was such that it was considered a “President-Maker,” utilizing words and images to sway their readers’ support for specific candidates, including Abraham Lincoln (1864), Ulysses S. Grant (1868), and Rutherford B. Hayes (1876).
As photography was still a young medium in the nineteenth century, and several years away from being reproducible in print publications, artistic renderings in pen and ink dominated the visual language of newspapers and magazines. Perhaps the most influential of all nineteenth-century illustrators was Thomas Nast, an artist who worked for Harper’s Weekly for more than 20 years (1862-1886). On January 15, 1870, Nash published a cartoon that would forever solidify the donkey’s association with the Democratic Party. The image, however, needs some historical context in order to make sense to contemporary eyes.
First of all, “democrat” and “republican” meant very different things in the nineteenth century than they do today, though the meaning of “jackass” (as relayed in the image caption) pretty well remains the same. Nast freely advocated specific political positions in his cartoons, and in this case, he allows his disdain for a group of Northern Democrats known as the “Copperheads” to shine. In this image, he’s accusing the Copperhead “press” of dishonoring the memory of E.M. Stanton, the recently deceased press secretary for President Lincoln (also deceased at this time). Nash strongly supported the Lincoln-era Republicans, who opposed slavery and spearheaded the Reconstruction of the South in the post-Civil War years. Nash continued to represent Democrats as “jackasses” in many cartoons, and the association has stuck ever since.
Nash was not, however, the first to use the donkey to represent a Democrat. In 1828, opponents of Andrew Jackson often referred to him as a jackass during his presidential campaign. Jackson, however, embraced the association and used the image as a symbol of his campaign, rebranding the donkey as determined, willful, and steadfast, rather than slow, wrong-headed, and obstinate. An 1837 lithograph illustrates this link between Jackson and the jackass, though the association was soon forgotten until Nast resurrected it 30 years later.
In a scathing 1874 cartoon, Nast birthed the association of the elephant with Republicans. In this image, Nast represented the Democratic press, rather than the party itself, as a donkey in lion’s clothing (the party is portrayed as a shy fox). Nash believed the media was perpetuating the idea, through fearmongering, that Ulysses S. Grant was a potential American dictator in his bid for the White House. In the cartoon, he uses the elephant to represent the Republican vote that was running scared toward a pit of inflation and chaos. It is unsure why Nash chose an elephant – perhaps it was because they are large, powerful animals that are said to be easily alarmed, or because the phrase “seeing the elephant” referred to war and may have been a reference to General Grant’s Union victory in the Civil War. Whatever its origins, Nast’s repeated use of the elephant to represent the Republican party stuck, and eventually was adopted as an official symbol of the GOP.
Democrats never officially adopted the donkey as its symbolic power animal, yet it hardly matters today. For more than 140 years now, the donkey and the elephant have been inextricably linked to the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and this is unlikely to change for generations to come.
Visit Shaking Hands & Kissing Babies, a temporary exhibition showcasing presidential campaign materials from George Washington to Barak Obama, on view now at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Source material: Jimmy stamp, Smithsonian.com, October 23, 2012.