US Election: Origins of the Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant

US Election: Origins of the Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant

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In case you happen to be one of those people who wonder how everything started, you would be amazed to learn that the two extremely popular party animals have been on the political scene since the 19th century. Specifically, the Democratic Party’s donkey started as an insult during Andrew Jackson's 1828 presidential campaign, when his political opponents labeled him as a "jackass." Known for being stubborn and obstinate, Jackson decided to use the insult in his favor and began putting the strong-willed animal on his election posters. As it turned out, Jackson defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams and became America’s first Democratic president. In the 1870s, influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who’s widely considered the father of the modern political cartoon, helped popularize the donkey as a symbol for the entire Democratic Party.

Nast cartoon of Democratic donkey, from "Harper's Weekly", January 19th 1870.

Although, Nast wouldn’t be happy until he would also invent another famous symbol: the Republican elephant. In a cartoon that first appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1874, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion's skin, intimidating the rest of the animals at the zoo. One of those animals was the elephant that some labeled “The Republican Vote.” That's all it took for the elephant to become associated with the Republican Party. During the 1870s, Nast used the elephant to represent Republicans in additional cartoons, and by 1880 other artists were using the same symbol for the party.

1874 Nast cartoon featuring the first notable appearance of the Republican elephant ( public domain )

Scientific Study Shows Brain Differences Between the Supporters of the Two Political Parties

Today, Democrats claim that the donkey is a very smart and brave animal, while Republicans say the elephant is extremely strong and dignified. Obviously, their favoritism has a lot to do with the fact that these two animals are seen as the absolute symbols of their political parties, but it makes you wonder if the selection of these two animals, and one’s affiliation to one or the other, is as random and simple as it appears to be.

The theory that nothing happens coincidentally in politics, seems to be verified by a 2011 study conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai's group at University College London published in Current Biology, and which found a connection between differences in political views and differences in brain structures in a convenience sample of students from University College London. The scientists involved to the study performed MRI scans on the brains of ninety volunteer students who had previously openly indicated their political preference on a five-point scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative”. Students who reported more conservative political views tended to have larger amygdalae, a structure in the temporal lobes that performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotions. Further, they found clusters in which gray matter volume was significantly associated with conservativism in the left insula and the right entorhinal cortex. There is evidence that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust. On the other hand, more liberal students tended to have a larger volume of grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a structure of the brain associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information.

In an interview with LiveScience, Ryota Kanai said, "It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions", and that, "more work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude." Kanai and colleagues added that is very important to conduct a detailed study to find out whether the changes in brain structure that they observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.

Research has shown differences between the brains of Republicans and the brains of Democrats. Credit: Nevada Policy Research

Behavioral and Neuroscientific Evidence

Another study , found that people with right-wing views had greater skin conductance response, indicating greater sympathetic nervous system response to threatening images than those with left-wing views, even though there was no difference for positive or neutral images. Holding right-wing views was also linked with a stronger startle reflex as measured by strength of eye blink in response to unexpected noise. But again, many scientists can’t agree that such neurological differences are capable to define people’s choices on politics. It seems that when it comes to politics, most people tend to have pretty strong opinions, and aren't always so receptive to conflicting ideologies not because of the various signals transmitted to their brain by their nervous system, but due to what they have been brainwashed to believe from young age.

Could One Still Switch His/Her Political Affiliation?

A 2004 study on political judgment and decision-making also showed the ubiquity of emotion-biased motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives. To what extent, however, motivated reasoning engages neural circuits involved in “cold” reasoning and conscious emotion regulation is still unknown. So, someone who’s reading this now is probably wondering: Can I still switch my political affiliation, or it’s more complicated than I originally thought? Well, to make a long story short, one could definitely switch affiliations, even though if you take a better look at politics, people rarely do so. Why this happens? Even most scientists are not really sure if that happens because of some neural obstacles that prevent you from crossing the aisle.

Nobody is born a Republican or a Democrat

In conclusion, it would be safe to claim that political affiliation is undoubtedly influenced by cultural factors such as family upbringing, religion, ethnicity and geographical location, even though various studies have clearly showed recently that biology plays an important role as well, predisposing us to adopt certain political ideologies, and also preventing us from letting them go. The problem, however, is that it’s impossible to predict at this time how much more scientists will learn in a decade from now about the social, cognitive, and motivational structures and functions of political belief systems, especially if cooperation among psychologists, political scientists, neuroscientists, and geneticists simply continues apace. So, the next time you try to make a valid point during a political debate, just keep in mind that changing someone's mind or political views, is probably as difficult as changing their brain.

Political Animals: Republican Elephants and Democratic Donkeys

Related Content

Typical contemporary illustrations of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant

In a few days, America will elect our next president. It’s been a particularly contentious and divisive campaign, with party lines not so much drawn as carved: red states vs. blue states liberals vs. conservatives Republicans vs. Democrats. While party platforms change and politicians adapt their beliefs in response to their constituency and their poll numbers, one thing has remained consistent for more than 100 years: the political iconography of the democratic donkey and the republican elephant.

The donkey and elephant first appeared in the mid-19th century, and were popularized by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist working for Harper’s Magazine from 1862-1886. It was a time when political cartoons weren’t just relegated to a sidebar in the editorial page, but really had the power to change minds and sway undecided voters by distilling complex ideas into more compressible representations. Cartoons had power. And Thomas Nast was a master of the medium, although one who, by all accounts, was churlish, vindictive and fiercely loyal to the Republican party. In fact, it’s said that President Lincoln referred to Nast as his “best recruiting general” during his re-election campaign. These very public “recruiting” efforts led Nast to create the familiar political symbols that have lasted longer than either of the political parties they represent.

The 1870 Harpers cartoon credited with associating the donkey and the Democratic Party

On January 15, 1870, Nast published the cartoon that would forever link the donkey to the Democrat. A few ideas should be clear for the cartoon to make sense: First, “republican” and “democrat” meant very different things in the 19th century than they do today (but that’s another article entirely) “jackass” pretty much meant the exact same thing then that it does today and Nast was a vocal opponent of a group of Northern Democrats known as “Copperheads.”

In his cartoon, the donkey, standing in for the Copperhead press, is kicking a dead lion, representing President Lincoln’s recently deceased press secretary (E.M. Stanton). With this simple but artfully rendered statement, Nast succinctly articulated his belief that the Copperheads, a group opposed the Civil War, were dishonoring the legacy of Lincoln’s administration. The choice of a donkey –that is to say, a jackass– would be clearly understood as commentary intended to disparage the Democrats. Nast continue to use the donkey as a stand-in for Democratic organizations, and the popularity of his cartoons through 1880s ensured that the party remained inextricably tied to jackasses. However, although Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing this association, he was not the first to use it as a representation of the Democratic party.

An 1837 lithograph depicting the first appearance of the Democratic donkey.

In 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president, his opponents were fond of referring to him as a jackass (if only such candid discourse were permissible today). 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. Throughout his presidency, the symbol remained associated with Jackson and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party. The association was forgotten, though, until Nast, for reasons of his own, revived it more than 30 years later.

“The Third Term Panic: An ass, having put on the Lion’s skin, roamed about in the forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings.” Thomas Nast for Harpers, 1874.

In 1874, in yet another scathing cartoon, Nast represented the Democratic press as a donkey in lion’s clothing (though the party itself is shown as a shy fox), expressing the cartoonist’s belief that the media were acting as fear mongers, propagating the idea of Ulysses S. Grant as a potential American dictator. In Nast’s donkey-in-lion’s-clothing cartoon, the elephant –representing the Republican vote– was running scared toward a pit of chaos and inflation. The rationale behind the choice of the elephant is unclear, but Nast may have chosen it as the embodiment of a large and powerful creature, though one that tends to be dangerously careless when frightened. Alternately, the political pachyderm may have been inspired by the now little-used phrase “seeing the elephant,” a reference to war and a possible reminder of the Union victory. Whatever the reason, Nast’s popularity and consistent use of the elephant ensured that it would remain in the American consciousness as a Republican symbol.

Like Andrew Jackson, the Republican party would eventually embrace the caricature, adopting the elephant as their official symbol. The Democrats, however, never officially adopted the donkey as a symbol. Nonetheless, come election season, both animals lose any zoological significance in favor of political shorthand. For while candidates may flip and flop, legislation may be stripped or stuffed, and political animals may change their stripes, the donkey and elephant remain true.

How an elephant came to symbolize the Republican Party

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican Party has embraced its party mascot. The elephant appeared in July at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. It appears on the party's website. It even appears on the skirts of GOP supporters.

Like the donkey of the Democrats, the elephant goes back to political cartoons of the mid- to late 1800s.

In an 1864 ad that celebrated Abraham Lincoln's re-election as president, an elephant is shown under the headline "Victory, Victory!" This image appeared in the pro-Lincoln newspaper Father Abraham.

"Seeing the elephant" was slang among Civil War soldiers for fighting in battle, according to Harper's Weekly. This made the image of a charging elephant reasonable to associate with a wartime political victory for Republicans, the party in power. While this is the first recognized association of the elephant with Republican politics, it is not the cartoon credited with linking the party to the tusked giant.

In 1874, Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a caricature of the Republican Party as an elephant seen as the lasting link between the two. Nast's cartoon, published shortly before the 1874 midterm elections, shows the elephant tumbling toward a pit.

Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives a few weeks later. Nast penned a follow-up cartoon of the Republican elephant in the pit and over the coming years, developed the elephant as the mascot of the party.

As with the Democratic donkey, the elephant became associated with the Republican Party and eventually, the symbol was adopted by Republicans.

The Growing Popularity of the Symbol

Although the donkey was used as a symbol as early as 1828, Thomas Nast is often credited with making it the symbol of the Democrats. Nast, a political cartoonist, first published a cartoon depicting a live jackass kicking a dead lion in Harper’s Weekly in 1870. In 1874, He published another cartoon titled “Third Term Panic” in which he depicted a donkey in lion’s skin chasing other animals including an elephant which he referred to as “Republican vote.” Nast used the elephant to represent the Republican and a donkey to represent the Democrats. While the Donkey is synonymous with the Democratic Party, the Democrats have never made it their official party symbol but use it on a lot of their material.

Why The Donkey Vs. The Elephant?

In U.S. politics, the Democratic Party has been represented by a donkey and the Republican Party by an elephant for decades. But few people know how long they've symbolized the two big parties, or where the symbols even came from.

The donkey's first use in political parlance to represent the Democratic Party came in 1828, during the presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a popular war hero (after victories in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War) and ran a campaign under the slogan "Let the People Rule."

Jackson's opponents attacked him as a populist and branded him a "jackass." But Jackson liked the comparison and used the jackass/donkey as a campaign symbol. Opponents later used the jackass/donkey to represent Jackson's stubbornness in office.

But the person who is most responsible for making the donkey a symbol of the Democrats and the elephant a symbol of the Republicans was a cartoonist for "Harper's Weekly" magazine, Thomas Nast.

He first used the donkey in 1870 to represent an antiwar faction he disagreed with, and the next year he used the image of an elephant in a cartoon warning Republicans that their infighting would hurt them in upcoming elections.

But it was his November 7, 1874 cartoon titled "Third Term Panic" that would forever link the animals as symbols of each party.

At the time, Republican Ulysses S. Grant had served two terms as president and was considering running for a third. In the cartoon, a donkey wearing a lion's skin labeled "Caeserism" frightens off other animals, including an elephant identified as "The Republican Vote."

The caption reads: "'An Ass, having put on the Lion's skin, roamed about in the Forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings.' -- Shakespeare or Bacon."

Nast was referring to a series of editorials in the "New York Herald" attacking President Grant for seeking a third term and for what it called his "Caeserism," or undemocratic attempt to seize imperial power. The cartoon's imagery is from Aesop's fable "The Ass in the Lion's Skin," with the moral being that a fool may disguise his appearance but his words will give him away.

Nast continued to use the elephant to symbolize the "Republican vote" until eventually it simply became "Republicans." Soon other political cartoonists followed suit and the donkey and elephant became widely used as the symbols of the two parties.

US election: Why a Republican elephant and Democratic donkey?


The US has two main political parties - the Republicans and the Democrats.

Every president since 1853 has belonged to one of these two political parties.

They both have different ideas about how the country should be run, and they also have different animals that represent them.

The Republican party is represented by an elephant and the Democratic party is recognised by the symbol of a donkey.

Well, it is thought the Republican elephant was first used like this by an Illinois newspaper during Abraham Lincoln's 1860 election campaign - perhaps as a symbol of strength, although it is still debated.

It was then made popular after a man called Thomas Nast - who was a Republican - drew it in a cartoon in a magazine in 1874.

Getty Images

As for the Democratic donkey, it is thought this was first used during a presidential campaign in 1828, after the candidate Andrew Jackson used it on his posters because of a nickname his opponents gave him.

Again, Thomas Nast later used the cartoon animal to represent the Democrats and it became a popular symbol for the party by the end of the 19th century.

Getty Images

The Donkey and the Elephant

The donkey and elephant have long represented the Democratic and Republican Parties. But how did they choose them? Did they spend months deliberating? Was a law passed? Was there a public vote? Actually neither party set out to find an icon. The acceptance of these symbols grew out of negative comments and political cartoons. Here’s how it happened.


The Democratic Party’s first association with the donkey came about during the 1828 campaign of Democrat Andrew Jackson. Running on a populist platform (by the people, for the people) and using a slogan of “Let the People Rule,” Jackson’s opponents referred to him as a jackass (donkey). Much to their chagrin, Jackson incorporated the jackass into his campaign posters. During Jackson’s presidency the donkey was used to symbolize his stubbornness by his opponents.

After Andrew Jackson left office, political cartoonists furthered the Democrat and donkey connection. An 1837 cartoon depicted Jackson leading a donkey which refused to follow, portraying that Democrats would not be led by the previous president.

The habit of associating the donkey and the Democratic Party had begun.


The earliest connection of the elephant to the Republican Party was an illustration in an 1864 Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign newspaper, Father Abraham. It showed an elephant holding a banner and celebrating Union victories. During the Civil War, “seeing the elephant” was slang for engaging in combat so the elephant was a logical choice to represent successful battles.

The elephant appeared again in an 1872 issue of Harper’s Weekly where it depicted Liberal Republicans.

For whatever reason, political cartoonists and the public did not yet associate the elephant with the Republican Party.

THOMAS NAST, Political Cartoonist

Thomas Nast is widely credited with perpetuating the donkey and elephant as symbols for the Democratic and Republican Parties. Nast first used the donkey in an 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly to represent an anti-war faction with whom he disagreed and in 1871, he used the elephant to alert Republicans that their intra-party fighting was detrimental to the upcoming elections.

However, it was his 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon entitled “Third Term Panic” (pictured at right) that solidified the use of symbols.

Republican Ulysses Grant had been president for two terms and was contemplating a third (it wasn’t until 1951 when the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms). The cartoon depicted a donkey wearing a lion’s skin emblazoned with the words “Caesarism” (an undemocratic attempt to wield imperial power) frightening away an elephant wearing the words, “Republican Vote.” After this cartoon appeared, Nast used the elephant again and again to represent the “Republican Vote.” Eventually the “Vote” fell away and the elephant and Republican Party became synonymous.

It’s amazing to think that an insult, a war phrase, and dry humor influenced the symbols which came to represent two of the most powerful political parties in the world.

Below are two additional cartoons that include the donkey and elephant created by Thomas Nast, both of which were featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Read More

  • Read more about Thomas Nast, take a look at a portfolio of his cartoons, and review questions in the teacher’s guide on the Cartoons website created by the Ohio State University Libraries at:
  • Our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both adamantly opposed the development of political parties. Yet, our nation’s first two political parties—the Federalist Party and the Republican Party—were both formed during Washington’s second term. Learn all about the rise of political parties in America and how they have changed over the years in “Choosing Sides: The Rise of Party Politics.”
  • Discover more information about all our nation’s political parties by checking out the “Links for National Political Parties.”
  • Not all our presidents have been a Democrat or a Republican! Discover the political party affiliation of each of our nation’s presidents, including which presidents were Whigs, in “The Presidential Fact Files.”

Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • What positive and negative traits do donkeys have?
  • What positive and negative traits do elephants have?
  • Do you think the donkey and elephant were the best choices to represent the Democratic and Republican Parties? Why? Why not? What animals would you have picked and why?
  • What kind of animal best represents you? Why?
  • Do you think political cartoons influence readers? How so?
  • Would a cartoon change your mind or just make you aware of the other side of an issue?
  • Are political cartoons a good use of Freedom of Speech?

Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Research how the Democratic and Republican Parties came to be. The first political party called themselves Federalists. Visit your local library to learn more and also read “Choosing Sides: The Rise of Party Politics.” Discuss the following questions: Why was the first party called the Federalists? What did they stand for? What party came next? What did they stand for? What did this next party change their name to? What happened to the Federalists after the War of 1812? Who became the Whigs?
  • How did the Republican Party get the name Grand Old Party?
  • What are the differences between our current Democratic and Republican Parties?
  • How many of our Presidents were Democrats? How many of our Presidents were Republicans?
  • Divide the class into two groups-Democrats and Republicans. Have each group research their party to determine the basic platforms and the names and dates of their party’s presidents. Have each group present its party’s core beliefs. As a class, draw a time line of our presidents, identifying each party. Have we had more Democratic or Republican presidents?
  • Our nation has had other political parties in our history. What were they? Did they have mascots or symbols to represent them? Do you think the symbols were accurate?
  • Divide the class into three groups and give them a century to research (1800, 1900, and 2000). Identify each party, what it stood for, if it had a mascot, and how that mascot reflected the party’s beliefs.
  • Elephants are native to Asia and Africa and donkeys were brought here by explorers. Have the class study animals that were native to America in the 1800s and come up with two that best represent the Democrats and Republicans. Discuss why each was chosen and how its characteristics reflect the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Reference Sources

Anderson, Dale. The Republican Party: The Story of the Grand Old Party. Minneapolis: Point Books: Compass Point Books, 2006.

Paine, Albert Bigelow. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures . Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010.

Sabato, Larry and Howard R. Ernst. Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.

Sperber, Hans and Travis Trittschuh. American Political Term: An Historical Dictionary . Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

Wayne, Stephen J., et al. Conflict and Consensus in American Politics . Stamford: Cenage Learning, 2008.

Online Resources

©2016 by Helen Kampion The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance

Civil War

At that time in the U.S., tensions were high between Northern and Southern states, causing the Civil War to break out in 1861, in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s inauguration. In the Civil War, seven Southern States formed the Confederate States of America and fought for detachment from the United States. However, the Union won the war, and the Confederacy was formally dissolved. The issue of slavery was at the center of political disagreement during the Civil War. This caused Republicans to fight for the abolition of slavery and Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

At this point in history, the U.S. South was predominantly Democratic and held conservative, agrarian-oriented, anti-big-business values. These values were characteristic of the Democratic Party at the time. The majority of Northern voters, on the other hand, were Republican. Many of these fought for civil and voting rights for African American people.

Why do the Republicans have a donkey?

Mr Nast was also responsible for linking the Republican Party to the elephant logo during the 1870s.

The political cartoonist repeatedly used the symbol of an elephant to represent the &lsquoRepublican vote&rsquo and Republicans.

In one cartoon in 1874, he drew an image of a elephant - which was labelled as &lsquothe Republican voter&rsquo - running scared towards a pit of chaos.

Political cartoon by Thomas Nast in 1876

A donkey in lion&rsquos clothing represents the Democratic press - suggesting that the media were acting a fear mongers. The Democratic Party is shown as a sly fox.

The caption read: &ldquoAn ass, having put on the Lion&rsquos skin, roamed about in the forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings.&rdquo

Another cartoon in 1876 showed the Republican vote - represented by Uncle Sam riding an elephant - walking over the Democratic Tiger.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican Party has adopted the elephant as its official symbol.

Watch the video: United States Presidential Election Results 1788 - 2020


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