25 June 2008

I learned something today.

Pumpkin asked why the donkey and the elephant are the symbols of our political parties. I had no clue, but I love collecting me some donkeys, LOL. So I went looking today and found this:

What is the origin of the donkey and the elephant as the symbols of the Republican and Democratic Party? How did the parties select these mascots?

They didn't pick them - they got stuck with them! Their origin as symbols for the parties is attributed to a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who used the donkey and the elephant in cartoons drawn for Harper's Weekly in the 1870's. Why Nast chose the donkey and the elephant is a pretty complicated story, and requires some understanding of the politics of that day.

Nast combined these two symbols together for the first time in an 1874 cartoon for Harper's Weekly, called "The Third Term Panic." He drew a donkey disguised in a lion-skin, trying to scare away the animals in a forest. One of the animals frightened by the donkey's roar was an elephant - a symbol for Republican voters, who were abandoning President Ulysses S. Grant's quest for a 3rd term, and in Nast's view, were falling into a trap set by the Democrats. You can see the original Nast cartoon on this website:

The cartoon was based on a scandal of the day - a hoax which had been foisted on its readers by the New York Herald newspaper. The Herald ran a deliberately false story about animals breaking out of the zoo and foraging for food throughout Central Park. Around the same time, the Herald was running a series of editorials against a 3rd term for President Ulysses S. Grant, calling the possibility "Caesarism." In Nast's cartoon, the donkey disguised as a lion is roaring out "Caesarism," and scaring away the elephant. The donkey was a stand-in for the Democratic-leaning Herald newspaper, and the elephant stood for the Republican party.

Other cartoonists of the time picked up the idea of the timid elephant representing Republicans, and that symbol for the party became widely recognized and accepted by the general public. Nast's cartoon showing a duplicitous donkey attacking a weak-minded elephant, became a handy symbol for other cartoonists wanting to represent Democrats attacking Republicans.

Popular recognition of the image overrode the party's own wishes - the Democratic party has never officially adopted the donkey as its emblem, but came to accept the reality that the symbol had stuck. The donkey had been used earlier in our history as a political symbol. In the 1828 presidential campaign, Andrew Jackson was labeled a "jackass," for his populist views. Jackson proudly seized the label and began using donkeys on his campaign posters. During his presidency, cartoonists sometimes used the donkey to illustrate President Jackson's stubbornness on certain issues. After Jackson, the donkey symbol largely faded, only to be revived again by Thomas Nast in his 1870's cartoons.

Over time, Republicans came to view the elephant emblem as a sign of strength and intelligence, and officially adopted it as their emblem, while their opponents portrayed it as a timid and clumsy behemoth. Democrats seized the "jackass" label, and transformed it into a clever and courageous donkey. As is still true today, it's all in the spin!


~Julie~ said...

*wow* does this post ever 'take me back', Rachel! lol Thanks for posting this! I did a report on Nast in my senior year (much to the dislike of my government teacher; pfft.)

In any case..thanks for the trip down memory lane! ;)


Pumpkin said...

LOL! That's awesome! Thanks for researching this :o) I have the Breyer elephant from the 1970's that was made for one of the election years.

I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped--Frederick Perls