The origins of the Democratic donkey hark back to the presidential campaign of 1828, a re-match between Andrew Jackson and the incumbent John Quincy Adams. Opponents of Jackson labeled him a “jackass” for his populist beliefs and campaign slogan “let the people rule”. More entertained than provoked by the moniker, Jackson decided to incorporate the strong willed animal into his campaign posters and went on to defeat Adams, becoming America’s first Democratic President. For the rest of his life newspapers continued to satirize Jackson as either a stubborn ass or struggling to control a wayward donkey that refused to follow.
But it wasn’t until 1870 when political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the man credited with our modern images of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, used a donkey in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” that the symbol truly became imbedded in the American consciousness as synonymous with the Democratic party. The cartoon depicts a donkey labeled “Copperhead Papers” – copperhead being a name given by Republicans to the more extreme faction of the northern democrats who opposed the Civil War and called for immediate peace – kicking a dead lion labeled “Hon. E.M. Stanton”, Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased Secretary of War who Nast felt was being disrespected by the Democratic press. In a testament to the influence wielded by Nast, the donkey almost instantly became the recognized symbol of the entire democratic party.
Four years later in 1874, Nast penned another cartoon, this time linking the elephant to the GOP. The strong, dignified pachyderm had already been featured as a Republican symbol, though not widely, during the Civil War when “seeing the elephant” was used by soldiers as a euphemism for experiencing combat. Nast’s drawing titled “The Third-Term Panic” mocked the New York Herald, a paper that had been critical of Nast’s close friend, President Ulysses S. Grant. At the time, Grant had already been president for nearly two terms and it was rumored that he was contemplating a run for a third (the 22nd amendment which installed term limits on the presidency wouldn’t be in place until 1951). The New York Herald had been extremely critical of Grant’s proposal to run again, likening it to “Caesarism” or an imperial dictatorship. In “The Third-Term Panic” Nast depicts a donkey dressed as a lion, terrifying other animals including an elephant labeled “the Republican vote” teetering on a precipice labeled “inflation” and “chaos”.
Though Grant didn’t end up running for a third term, the New York Herald’s criticism did influence the election and the Republicans lost control of the house. Nast vented his disappointment with another cartoon showing an elephant caught in a trap set by a donkey. By 1880 both the donkey and the elephant were being used by other cartoonists and were firmly entrenched as the accepted symbols of the two parties.