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Why Elephants and Donkeys Are American Political Symbols

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The symbols are instantly recognizable. Republicans are elephants and Democrats are donkeys. The way this came to be has more to do with cartoons and happenstance than you might guess. The symbols weren't hand-picked for their symbolic resonance, but were insults and jokes co-opted by the parties to become symbols of strength.

It all started with the 1828 presidential election. Andrew Jackson was running as a Democrat and his opponents had labeled him a jackass. Like any good spin department would do, Jackson embraced the moniker, rather than hoping it'd go away. Jackson was reportedly amused by the insult and started to include images of donkeys in his campaign posters. Jackson would eventually defeat incumbent John Quincy Adams and become the nation's first Democratic president.

German-born political cartoonist Thomas Nast — whose drawings also gave birth to modern conceptions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam — gave new life to those posters by using the donkey as a symbol for the whole Democratic Party in the 1870s.

It stuck.

republican elephants democrat donkeys
<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-2733991p1.html?cr=00&pl=edit-00">Everett Historical</a> / Shutterstock

Nast's continued usage of the donkey as a symbol for Democrats gave birth to the elephant as a symbol as well.

The Republican Party was formed in 1854, six years before Abraham Lincoln would become the first Republican president. During the Civil War, at least one political cartoon featured an elephant as a symbol of the party during a time when "seeing the elephant" was an expression soldiers used to mean that they had experienced combat.

But it didn't take hold as a common symbol of the party until Nast used it in a cartoon titled "The Third-Term Panic" (above) in an 1874 issue of Harper's Weekly.

Nast's cartoon poked fun at the New York Herald, who had been critical of rumors that President Ulysses Grant would seek a third term. The cartoon featured various interest groups represented by animals with a donkey in a lion's skin labeled "Caesarism" at the center. At the edge of a pit was an elephant labeled "The Republican Vote," who Nast portrayed as fearing the Democrat's scare tactic.

Nast would continue to use the animals in cartoons as shorthand for the parties. By the 1880s others were using it as a symbol of the party as well. 

Like with Jackson and the jackass, Republicans grabbed hold of the elephant as a symbol of strength and it too stuck. Now both parties have animals as symbols and both symbols came about not through their own selection, but because it was more or less selected for them. The Republicans have even adopted the elephant as an official symbol of the party. The Democrats, however, have left their poor ass hanging in the wind and have never adopted it as an official symbol.

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record, but has never met the fingernail lady. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, The Rumpus, and other digital wonderlands. Follow him @dlukenelson.