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Symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties

Symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties

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Donkey vs Elephant

You may be tired of politics, but if you’ve a sense of humor you may just like this story! If you’ve ever wondered, as I did, how those two particular animals, the donkey and elephant came to be the symbols of two opposing political parties, maybe you might have researched the history. Just in case you didn’t, I did and here’s some fun things I found.

Would it surprise you to find that both symbols came out of negative comments about each party? No? Well it didn’t surprise me either, since from the beginning of recorded history, that’s how foes have identified each other and built up the courage and confidence of their followers. Finding new nasty names to call each other has become an art in present day politics, but the two symbols that define each of the parties are very much alive to this day. On down the page we’ll  also have a comparison of the characteristics of the real animals as compared to the party characteristics. Just for fun.

Here’s How It All Began

Almost all political cartoons show the donkey and the elephant representing the Democrat and the Republican parties. It began with an insult from opponents in 1828 against Andrew Jackson, that he was a jackass. Stubbornly, (upholding the honor of the name) he grabbed the title and ran with it, letting it be known with a donkey on his election posters. For the entirety of his political career and even into his retirement, he was branded with the title of jackass. That was fine with him, because he WAS stubborn, stood for what he thought was right, and didn’t care a whit that the name stuck. Strangely enough that went on to describe any person of that particular party who ran for political office. Do you know any stubborn jackasses, er, uh, Democrats? Wait! Don’t get peeved, you haven’t read what I have to say about the other party yet!


Thomas Nast Santa cartoon from Harper's Weekly

Thomas Nast Santa cartoon from Harper’s Weekly

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Enter Cartoonist Thomas Nast

In 1870, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, famous for giving us iconic Uncle Sam and Santa Claus images, drew a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly, presenting the donkey as Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War. He titled his cartoon, “A Live Jackass Kicking A Dead Lion,” the lion being a representation of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s recently deceased Secretary of War. He believed this group was anti-Union (not as in labor union, but in the union of the country) and believed their treatment and remarks were disrespectful of the man who was not alive to stand up for himself. But oh, Nast wasn’t finished yet!

Nast Democratic Donkey

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Behold the Muddled Elephant

In 1874, Nast again plied his considerable cartooning skills and drew an elephant representing his party (Republican) when the New York Herald publicly opposed Ulysses S. Grant running for a third term, using the term “Caesarism.” Nast, becoming disenchanted with his party, and feeling they’d fall for this declaration from the paper, drew a cartoon titled “The Third Term Panic,” with the donkey representing the Democrats and the Herald, wearing a lion’s skin bearing the label “Caesarism” and frightening a group of animals. The elephant was labeled “Republican Vote,” and was shown awkwardly lumbering towards a pit labled “inflation,” and “chaos.” There’s also a fox shown as Democrats backing away from the pit the elephant is about to fall into. When the Republican party lost control of the House of Representatives that fall, Nast created another cartoon showing an elephant caught in a trap set by a donkey (Democrats) and the muddled, confused elephant, (Republicans) becoming addled, losing his senses AND the vote to the Democrats. Now THAT sounds familiar somehow!

The Thomas Nast Republican Elephant

The Thomas Nast
Republican Elephant

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What The Symbols and The Animals Have In Common

Before we continue the story of the two symbols, here’s a few things you might like to know about the real animals and how their characteristics possibly fit the parties they represent: elephants in the wild come from places like Africa and Asia, in tropical or subtropical climates. Wild donkeys, on the other hand usually live in dryer climates. Both can be used for work purposes. Some of their traits just may fit the symbols we’ve come to know as the Republican and Democrat symbols. I’ll leave it to you to decide, so bear with me on the research and a few grains of humor thrown in, and I promise we’ll get back to this fun little story right after.

The Wild Elephant

The Wild Elephant, According to Wikipedia: “Family: Elephantidae, order of Proboscidea: Elephants are scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Elephantidae are the only surviving family of the order Proboscidea; other, now extinct, families of the order include mammoths and mastodons. Elephants are not usually considered prey animals because of their size, except in extreme circumstances. Musth or must is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. ”

hmmmm, let’s see: Elephants are isolated far away from civilized life, they’re the only ones left of their family, they’re huge so nobody picks on them, and they survive by being nosy with a large proboscis. They don’t party with donkeys, only with other elephants. And if their testosterone elevates and they get into MUSTH you “must” make yourself scarce. ……O.K.A.Y. Got it!

The Wild Donkey

The Wild Donkey, According to Wikipedia: “The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African Wild Ass, E. africanus. The donkey has been used as a working animal for at least 5000 years. As beasts of burden and companions, asses and donkeys have worked together with humans for millennia. Donkeys have a notorious reputation for stubbornness, but this has been attributed to a much stronger sense of self-preservation, since they are prey animals. The ancestors of the modern donkey are the Nubian and Somalian subspecies of African Wild Ass. The world population of donkeys is reported to be rapidly shrinking, falling from 43.7 million to 43.5 million between 1995 and 2000, and to only 41 million in 2006.The Domestic Animal Diversity Information System….listed 189 breeds of ass in June 2011. ”

Okay, so donkeys are wild asses sometimes, but they work hard and have worked with humans and been companions to humans, oh… just forever, it seems. Their ancestors have never had anything to do with elephants and still don’t. Their numbers are shrinking and there are only 189 breeds of ass left as of 2011??.……..O.K.A.Y. Got it!

It’s up to the loyal reader to put these characteristics of the two animals with the party they represent…or NOT!

Back to Thomas Nast

Back to our story and Thomas Nast, who continued using the two animals to represent the two parties, and though those in the wild do not share any natural geographical territory, it appears they had a lot of political territory in common. An 1879 Nast cartoon shows a donkey snatched from falling into a pit labeled “financial chaos.” Where’s the elephant? Why, he’s lying in the path of the donkey, hoping he will fall over him and right into the pit, of course!

Other Cartoonists Began Using The Symbols

In 1880, other cartoonists began to represent the two political parties with the same two animals; donkey and elephant. On the one hand the donkey IS stubborn and on the other hand the elephant NEVER forgets! That puts our country in a mell of a hess sometimes, but we all have our viewpoints. Just keep in mind each animal has its good attributes: both can carry a heavy load, though one seems to have a greater ability for capacity, both need financial help to stay alive, both need caring and grooming and every now and then, both need a good swift kick….but be careful when doing that! Donkeys are known to kick back and elephants just set their foot on you. Either way you’re out of the game!

With more political campaigns every day for the each voting season, it can sometimes feel like a cyclone. Obviously there were times back in the day when everyone felt the same, witness this cartoon from Cartoonist Bob Satterfield:

'Tis the season of political cyclone

‘Tis the season of political cyclone

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So beware of the dangers when playing the political game! I hope you enjoyed this little play on words and on the political mores of the Republican and Democratic parties of the United States of America. Three important things to remember before any election: Get informed on the candidates FIRST then be sure to VOTE! What’s the third thing? Keep your sense of humor and carry on!

And so it is today in this stylized version of the symbols of the Republican and the Democratic parties.

And so it is today in this stylized version of the symbols of the Republican and the Democratic parties.