How Did Each Party Get Its Political Mascot?


As we wrap up the 2020 presidential election, this month’s article will be of a lighter nature. I do this with the hope that we can all work toward a brighter future, whether one likes an elephant or a donkey.

"Party animal" conjures up images of John Belushi in a toga. It also conjures up images of blue donkeys and red elephants during media coverage of recent elections.

Why donkeys for Democrats? Back in 1824, there was only one significant political party, the Democratic-Republicans. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and two other candidates, all Democratic-Republicans, ran for president. As none of them won a majority of the vote, under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives chose the president. The House chose Adams, despite the fact that Jackson had won both the electoral college and the popular vote. Many believe this went down because one of the other candidates, Henry Clay, threw his support behind John Quincy Adams in exchange for becoming secretary of state, an office which then was a breeding ground for presidents.

Irritated by this outcome, Jackson started his own political party, the Democrats. Fast forward four years: in 1828, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson face off again for president in one the dirtiest campaigns in American history. Adams supporters accused Jackson of marrying a convicted adulteress (Jackson and his wife apparently married a few years before her divorce was final) and Jackson supporters accused Adams of giving the Russian czar a young American girl as a sexual gift. During the mud-slinging, Jackson opponents called him Andrew "Jacka$$."

I am no fan of President Jackson - he defied the Supreme Court, violated a treaty and forced Native Americans from their homes to resettle in the Trail of Tears. Not one to back down from a challenge (he did, after all, fight in more than 100 duels), Jackson co-opted the insult. He claimed the donkey as hardworking, strong-willed and humble, and included donkeys in his campaign posters. He beat President Adams in a landslide.

Over 30 years later, in 1864, newspapers dominated how Americans got information, and political parties often represented themselves with roosters, eagles, and other random animals. In a pro-Lincoln newspaper called Father Abraham, a cartoon elephant flying a banner celebrated a string of Union victories, including some in Maryland. Why an elephant? The idea of elephants representing the Republican Party had been discussed as early as the founding of the GOP in 1854, and "seeing the elephant" was slang for engaging in combat.

Ten years later, enter Thomas Nast, already the most influential American political cartoonist of all time. In an age when photography was in its infancy and literacy was questionable (Nast himself was well-educated and self-educated but functionally illiterate), political cartoons pictorialized controversial issues for the masses. Nast's influence ranged widely - he popularized Santa Claus as red-clad, plump and jolly (previously Santa Claus was featured more as a religious figure) and of a bearded, top-hatted Uncle Sam resembling President Lincoln.

In a number of political cartoons in the 1870s, Nast adopted Jackson's donkey imagery for the Democratic Party, and the elephant for the Republicans. A Republican himself and friend of then-President Grant, Nast reportedly chose the donkey for its dull stubbornness, and the elephant for its dignity, intelligence and power when provoked. I can't argue with Thomas Nast - I have long admired elephants for their memory, compassion, love of family and grace under pressure.

The Democrat donkey and Republican elephant have remained in the American lexicon since the 1880s. The Republican Party has officially adopted the elephant as its mascot; the Democrats have never officially adopted the donkey. While I will never be presented with an elephant, as President Reagan was by Sri Lanka in 1984, I hope to proudly represent the Republican elephant for many years to come.


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