History of Political Parties

Why is the symbol of the Republican Party the elephant?

The Origin of the Republican Elephant

This symbol of the party was born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper's Weekly on Nov. 7, 1874. An 1860 issue of Railsplitter and an 1872 cartoon in Harper's Weekly connected elephants with Republicans, but it was Nast who provided the party with its symbol.

Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald raised the cry of "Caesarism" in connection with the possibility of a thirdterm try for President Ulysses S. Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant's second term and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect Republican voters.

While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York's Central Park in search of prey.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper's Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion's skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: "An ass having put on a lion's skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings."

One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote - not the party, the Republican vote - which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a subsequent cartoon on Nov. 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance.

Other cartoonists picked up the symbol, and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became the party itself: the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant. From William Safire's "New Language of Politics," Revised edition, Collier Books, New York, 1972

Why is the symbol of the Democratic Party the donkey?The Origin of the Democratic Donkey
When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, his opponents tried to label him a "jackass" for his populist views and his slogan, "Let the people rule." Jackson, however, picked up on their name calling and turned it to his own advantage by using the donkey on his campaign posters. During his presidency, the donkey was used to represent Jackson's stubbornness when he vetoed re-chartering the National Bank.

The first time the donkey was used in a political cartoon to represent the Democratic party, it was again in conjunction with Jackson. Although in 1837 Jackson was retired, he still thought of himself as the Party's leader and was shown trying to get the donkey to go where he wanted it to go. The cartoon was titled "A Modern Baalim and his Ass."

Interestingly enough, the person credited with getting the donkey widely accepted as the Democratic party's symbol probably had no knowledge of the prior associations. Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist, came to the United States with his parents in 1840 when he was six. He first used the donkey in an 1870 Harper's Weekly cartoon to represent the "Copperhead Press" kicking a dead lion, symbolizing Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who had recently died. Nast intended the donkey to represent an anti-war faction with whom he disagreed, but the symbol caught the public's fancy and the cartoonist continued using it to indicate some Democratic editors and newspapers.

Later, Nast used the donkey to portray what he called "Caesarism" showing the alleged Democratic uneasiness over a possible third term for Ulysses S. Grant. In conjunction with this issue, Nast helped associate the elephant with the Republican party. Although the elephant had been connected with the Republican party in cartoons that appeared in 1860 and 1872, it was Nast's cartoon in 1874 published by Harper's Weekly that made the pachyderm stick as the Republican's symbol. A cartoon titled "The Third Term Panic," showed animals representing various issues running away from a donkey wearing a lion's skin tagged "Caesarism." The elephant labeled "The Republican Vote," was about to run into a pit containing inflation, chaos, repudiation, etc.

By 1880 the donkey was well established as a mascot for the Democratic party. A cartoon about the Garfield-Hancock campaign in the New York Daily Graphic showed the Democratic candidate mounted on a donkey, leading a procession of crusaders.


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