Where the Republican Elephant and Democrat Donkey Came From

A History of Political Party Icons in the United States

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The first appearance of Republican Elephant with a fox in the bottom right corner representing the Democratic party in a political cartoon by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), November 1874. Kean Archives/Getty Images

Republicans have long been associated with elephants, and Democrats have embraced the donkey for centuries in American politics.

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But where did those icons come from?

And why have the elephant and donkey symbols stood the test of time?

About the Democratic Donkey

The Democrats' use of the donkey has its roots in the presidential campaign of 1828, often described as one of the dirtiest political campaigns in U.S. history.

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President John Quincy Adams was being challenged by Democratic Andrew Jackson, who had a colorful history that his opponents sought to capitalize on. As 19th Century history expert Robert McNamara has written:

"For those who detested Andrew Jackson, there was a goldmine of material, as Jackson was famed for his incendiary temper and had led a life filled with violence and controversy. He had taken part in several duels, killing a man in a notorious one in 1806. When commanding troops in 1815, he had ordered the execution of militia members accused of desertion. Even Jackson’s marriage became fodder for campaign attacks." 

Jackson's political opponents took to referring to him as a "jackass," a derogatory term the candidate eventually embraced.

Explains Smithsonian:

"Emboldened by his detractors, Jackson embraced the image as the symbol of his campaign, rebranding the donkey as steadfast, determined, and willful, instead of wrong-headed, slow, and obstinate."

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The image of Jackson as a donkey stuck.

In January of 1870, Harper's Weekly political cartoonist and loyal Republican Thomas Nast began using the donkey to represent Democrats on a regular basis and the imagery stuck.

The cartoon was titled A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.

About the Republican Elephant

Nast is responsible for the Republican elephant, as well. He first use an elephant to represent Republicans in a Harper's Weekly cartoon in November of 1874. He would go on to use it many more times, though it remains uncertain why, specifically, Nast chose an elephant to represent the Republican Party.

Wrote The New York Times:

"By the 1880 presidential election, cartoonists for other publications had incorporated the elephant symbol into their own work, and by March 1884 Nast could refer to the image he had created for the Republican Party as “The Sacred Elephant.”