Donkeys and Elephants…How Did They Become Political Party Symbols, and Why?

Donkeys and Elephants. Both creatures are emblematic of their respective political parties. Especially during election cycles, these characters appear in advertisements, cartoons, on bumper stickers, handbags, and even sometimes worn as really weird fashion statements.

Yet few people know how these animals became such well-known mascots of the red and the blue. Throughout the years they have simply become widely accepted and there doesn’t appear to have ever been any interest in making a change.

As odd it may sound, the symbols were created by one lone cartoonist who illustrated for Harper’s Weekly magazine between 1862 and 1886. His name was Thomas Nast and he was considered one of its harshest satirists of his time.

Citizens at the time of Nast’s employ with Harper’s joked how the word “nasty” was created from the man’s surname. He etched out controversial cartoons during the Civil War, the follies of Reconstruction, immigration, and every other political event of the time.

Historians agree that Nast, who resided in NYC in the 1840s and ’50s, was unmercifully bullied as a child based on his etchings. Throughout his career, there was a recurring theme of compassion for the victims of bullying, and a clear disdain for the bullies.

There was nothing simplistic or funny about his cartoons. They were meant as news. They were meant to be studied and analyzed to gain an accurate depiction of each one’s true meaning.

Nast was a proud supporter of the Lincoln Party. When Ulysses Grant considered running for a third term, which was still legal then, drew a donkey wearing a lions skin that was warning of a Grant dictatorship. The cartoon also included a goofy looking elephant rolling over a cliff. The elephant was referred to as the Republican vote.

But Nast was not the first person to portray Republicans as elephants. Nearly a complete decade earlier the GOP had advertised itself with the slogan “see the elephant.” The phrase was actually civil war lingo which meant “fight bravely.”

Nast wanted to portray politics as an out of control circus using animals as his subjects. And though he had no problems with ridiculing his own political party, he often portrayed the GOP as awkward bumbling elephants who were constantly wandering off in the wrong direction.

The donkey was used to portray the stubbornness of the Democrats and in every one of his political cartoons, the two sides are in the midst of chaos, which was indicative of the period.

In the 1880’s Nast was actually feared by both parties since they never knew from week to week what each new cartoon would present and which party would fall victim. They never knew whether it was going to simply poke fun or be serious.

But Nast’s reign of terror, for the most part, came to end in 1890 when he fell victim to a Ponzi scheme, losing every cent he had. He had spent a good portion of his career warning against such crooked activity before falling victim to it himself.

In an attempt to regain his fortune, Nast published an illustrated Christmas book, but by this time he had lost the creative edge he had gained while at Harper’s, and the book was a flop.

At this point, Nast drifted away into oblivion, but his donkey and elephant depictions remained as the symbols still used today by both parties. Why? Because nobody cares…