How a Donkey and Elephant Became Political Symbols

donkey elephant photo
©. Stephen Messenger

© Stephen Messenger

After well over a year of in-your-face presidential campaigning, marked by countless slogans, stump speeches, and oh so unavoidable advertising, at this point you've likely become something of an expert in political symbolism. Yet despite their ubiquity, the origins of some of the most enduring party emblems often eludes the oversaturated electorate -- namely, why Republicans are elephants and Democrats are donkeys.

While it's certainly not the most pressing political question you'll face today as we head to the polls, we'll take the opportunity to talk about politics in a terms of these less-than-democratically-elected party animals that have come to represent our majority parties.

Sure, most animals seem wise enough to not get involved in partisan squabbling. Political cartoonists, on the other hand, have delved into the natural world in search of symbols for centuries -- and it's actually just a handfull of such individuals whom we have to thank for the presence of donkeys and elephants in American politics.


Common-Place/CC BY 3.0

Democrat Andrew Jackson was perhaps the first to earn the unflattering label of "jackass" by his opponents while running for president in 1828, purportedly for for bucking his opponents in favor of a more stubbornly populist approach to governing. Sensing the symbolism might actually help win votes, Jackson would ultimately enter office after his campaign adopted a donkey on campaign posters.

Though Democrats might have hoped the donkey imagery might have ended after Jackson's election, the animal would eventually be used to represent the party as a whole even after he was out of office. In the cartoon above, from 1838, the elder statesman Jackson is seen trying to futilely wield his influence over an obstinant Democratic party.

elephant cartoon photo

Wikipedia/CC BY 3.0

Years later, in an 1874 printing of Harper's Magazine, artist Thomas Nast sought to characterize Republican voters as overly skittish in the face of Democratic fear-mongering during that time, that President Grant might become some sort if autocrat if reelected. Drawing allusions from Aesop and his easily frightened elephant tale, Nast thus represented Republicans as a political pachyderm recoiling in fear of -- you guessed it -- an idly threatening donkey in wolf's clothing.

According to HarpWeek, it didn't take long before the pejorative symbol stuck.

Thankfully, despite their rather originally pessimistic associations to political characteristics, both parties have come to proudly adopt their animal mascots for its positive sides -- Republicans for the elephant's strength, intelligence and dignity, and Democrats for the donkey's humility, courage, and lovability.