Do you know what the national animal of the United States is? A bald eagle, of course! But that’s not the mascot for the Republicans or the Democrats, the two main political parties in the country. So what are their mascots? The official mascot of the Democratic party is a donkey, and the Republicans use an elephant. But where did these mascots come from? Let’s break this down, shall we?
Political Parties In The USA
Unlike many other democratic nations in the world, the United States of America only has 2 main ruling parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. While there are a few other small parties (Green Party and Libertarian Party), the Republicans and Democrats hold a vast majority of the power. This is not how America was founded. The founding fathers did not envision a democracy in which 2 parties hold all the power. This was a fear of George Washington. In Washington’s farewell address, he stated:
“However [polital parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Despite Washington’s worries, the political parties dominated. The famous elephant and donkey mascots are very recognizable nowadays as the symbols of political parties. But where did these mascots originate?
Why Is the Republican Party’s “Mascot” an Elephant?
First up is the Republican Party. The story of the Republican elephant is a little more difficult to trace compared to the Democratic party mascot.
History of the Republican Party
The Republican party was formed in 1854 and had its first national committee in 1856. The party was an anti-slavery party and started as a direct result of slavery arguments coming to a boil in the US government. This resulted in northern abolitionists widely supporting the party while southern slave owners sided with the democratic party, creating a massive divide in the nation. The first president of the Republican party was Abraham Lincoln, who won the election in 1860. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln became president, he abolished slavery and declared the slaves free, which swept the country into a brutal civil war that lasted 5 years.
When Was The Elephant First Used?
One possible explanation associates the connection with the expression “seeing the elephant” – a phrase used by Civil War soldiers to describe their harrowing combat experiences.
The first political cartoon featuring the elephant as an image for the Republican Party was Thomas Nast’s political cartoon criticizing rumors that president Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was running for president for the third term. The cartoon was titled “The Third Panic” and essentially made fun of Republican party critics. Thomas Nast supported the party, and you can easily see his preferences in the cartoon. The cartoon shows many different animals running in a chaotic stampede. Each animal is labeled as a different organization in the US at the time, The New York Times, NY Tribune, NY Herald, and an elephant as “The Republican Vote.”
After publishing this cartoon, Thomas Nast continued to use an elephant as the symbol of the Republican party, and it eventually became the party’s official mascot.
But while Thomas Nast did make this symbol popular, he wasn’t the first to use it. Nast’s first picture came in 1874, but the elephant was even seen in Abraham Lincoln’s campaign in the 1860s.
But Why An Elephant?
In Nast’s 1874 cartoon, the democratic “ass” is wearing a lion’s head to intimidate the other animals labeled as different popular press organizations. The elephant labeled as “The Republican Vote” is the only animal standing up to the “lion.” Elephants represent strength and dignity, so Thomas Nast used this animal to depict what he saw in the Republican party.
Why is the Democrat Party’s “Mascot” A Donkey?
Now coming back to the Democratic party, the story dates back to the election of 1828, when Democrat Andrew Jackson was up against the incumbent John Quincy Adams of the Democratic-Republican party.
History of the Democrat Party
The Democrat party was founded on the shoulders of Andrew Jackson, a war hero from the south. He gained much support during the 1824 and 1828 elections, leading to his becoming president in 1829. The party thrived after his popular presidency and is, to this day, one of the two most popular parties in the USA.
Election of 1828
The donkey mascot of the Democrat party can easily be traced to the 1828 election. The two candidates, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, faced off in campaigns that were full of mudslinging and slander. Adams regularly referred to Jackson as “A. Jackass,” and Jackson leaned into that label, even including the image of a jackass – or a donkey – in his campaign posters.
Over time, the image became associated with the Democratic Party more generally. And soon enough, the mascot began to symbolize every hardworking man in the US at the time. The donkey is a symbol of hardworking, humble beginnings. Andrew Jackson was born poor and working class, and his party became the symbol of these people in the United States.
When Did The Donkey Become the Democrat’s Symbol?
Thomas Nast (the same cartoonist who created the elephant symbol) also popularized the donkey symbol. While the donkey had already been floating around as a symbol of the Democratic party, his cartoons in the 1870s depicting the democrats as donkeys popularized the symbol and eventually led to the donkey becoming the party’s mascot.
Overall, popular or not, good or bad press, the symbol is now everywhere. And not many people see that donkey as an insult anymore, but simply the party’s official mascot.
To sum up, this entire elephant/donkey situation of the Republican and Democratic parties all boils down to Thomas Nast’s political cartoons in the 1870s and 1880s. And ever since, many cartoonists have embraced the two symbols.
Today, both these parties have embraced their mascots. The elephant for the Republican party has become a symbol of strength, integrity, dignity, and intelligence, and it is now their official symbol.
On the other hand, the donkey symbol of the Democrats represents humbleness and the average working-class person.