Where the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant came from

As the Republican convention gets underway tomorrow in Cleveland and the Democrats the following week in Philadelphia, expect to see a lot of images of elephants and donkeys during the two events. In Sri Lankan politics, all political parties have an associated symbol that they choose for themselves. The symbols can be animals or inanimate items like a chair. These are prominently displayed at all party functions and are even present on ballot papers next to the party candidate’s name. This serves a practical purpose for voters who might be illiterate because they can identify whom to vote for by the symbol alone.

I was curious as to how these two animals came to symbolize the two parties in the US. The elephant is a powerful, majestic, and dignified animal and I can understand why a party might choose it as a symbol (and a major Sri Lankan party does have it as theirs). I was more puzzled by the donkey of the Democrats, since the qualities associated with that animal (probably unjustly) are braying, obstinacy, and general orneriness.

Elizabeth Nix says that the symbols were not chosen by the parties themselves and do not have any official status but were thrust on them by political cartoonists, Thomas Nast in particular.

The origins of the Democratic donkey can be traced to the 1828 presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson. During that race, opponents of Jackson called him a jackass. However, rather than rejecting the label, Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, was amused by it and included an image of the animal in his campaign posters. Jackson went on to defeat incumbent John Quincy Adams and serve as America’s first Democratic president. In the 1870s, influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize the donkey as a symbol for the entire Democratic Party.

The Republican Party was formed in 1854 and six years later Abraham Lincoln became its first member elected to the White House. An image of an elephant was featured as a Republican symbol in at least one political cartoon and a newspaper illustration during the Civil War (when “seeing the elephant” was an expression used by soldiers to mean experiencing combat), but the pachyderm didn’t start to take hold as a GOP symbol until Thomas Nast, who’s considered the father of the modern political cartoon, used it in an 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon. Titled “The Third-Term Panic,” Nast’s drawing mocked the New York Herald, which had been critical of President Ulysses Grant’s rumored bid for a third term, and portrayed various interest groups as animals, including an elephant labeled “the Republican vote,” which was shown standing at the edge of a pit. Nast employed the elephant to represent Republicans in additional cartoons during the 1870s, and by 1880 other cartoonists were using the creature to symbolize the party.

The two parties have since come to accept these symbols as representing them and now feature them prominently in their campaigns.


  1. KG says

    What an insult to elephants! As a more appropriate symbolic animal for the Republican Party of today, I suggest the hagfish. See particularly the sections on “slime” and “feeding”.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The Republican elephant has clear roots, but the only consensus I could find with a web search for why the stars on the side of its current incarnation are satanically inverted indicates, appropriately enough, that this change occurred circa Y2K, with the first nomination of the Bush-Cheney ticket.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Pierce @#1,

    I had not noticed that the stars were inverted! Is it really true that inverted stars are Satanic or did you just make that up?

  4. Wounded King says

    Inverted pentagrams are definitely associated with black magic and satanism. It is often suggested that it resembles a face on view of a goats head, goats also having a long association with Satanism. Indeed many heavy metal albums sport images of goats and inverted pentagrams.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Mano Singham @ # 3 -- No, (this time) I didn’t make up a single thing.

    Follow my link @ # 2, or do a search of your own for “pentagram” or “Satanic symbolism” or whatever wording along those lines floats your boat, and you’ll see a range of images of “upside-down” five-pointed stars (often, as Wounded King points out @ # 4, with a goat’s head inside them: beard in the single downward point, ears in the sideways points, horns in the upper pair).

    This goes back at least as far as Aleister Crowley, maybe even the Inquisition, and I can’t help but suspect that the graphic artist(s) who created the current GOP logo laughed themselves sick as they cashed their check(s).

  6. lorn says

    The phrase “seeing the elephant” has to be put into context. Elephants were, a the time of the Civil War, new. Most people had never seen on and could barely conceptualize that such an animal could exist. At the time seeing an elephant was to see something beyond imagination, something alien, an experience so profound that it shook up an individuals concept of what could exist.

    People were shocked. Fainting wasn’t uncommon. These were people who thought of themselves as worldly and well informed seeing something they couldn’t always wrap their minds around. When elephants were first shown people were warned to take care if they had a heart condition or were pregnant. Later these signs would be used as sales gimmicks for many not so shocking spectacles but at first they actually served a purpose.

    To “see the elephant” became code for experiencing something that rattled one’s world view and made one question one’s place in it. Something that makes a confident, worldly adult feel small, powerless, ignorant, and completely overwhelmed. Combat will, even to this day, do that to a person. Back in the day, seeing an elephant for the first time had a similar effect.

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