Donkey and Elephant Symbols in Politics

The donkey and the elephant, now iconic symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, have a rich and intriguing history that dates back to the early days of American politics. These symbols, initially born from insults and political propaganda, have evolved to represent the ideals and identities of their respective parties. Let’s delve into the fascinating backstory of how these creatures came to symbolize Democrats and Republicans.

The roots of the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic Party can be traced back to the tumultuous presidential campaign of 1828. During this election, John Quincy Adams faced off against Andrew Jackson in a bitter and mudslinging contest. Jackson’s camp accused Adams of various moral shortcomings, while Adams’ supporters were equally unkind in their assessments of Jackson. It was in this heated atmosphere that Jackson was derogatorily referred to as a “jackass” and compared to a stubborn and unreasonable donkey.

Andrew Jackson, a shrewd politician, didn’t shy away from the insult. Instead, he embraced the donkey as a symbol of his campaign. In his speeches, he extolled the virtues of the “jackass,” highlighting qualities such as loyalty, perseverance, and strength. By doing so, he redefined the donkey as a representation of the common man, emphasizing simple qualities and humble beginnings. This move set him apart from his opponent, John Quincy Adams, who was perceived as an aristocrat. Jackson aimed to be the president chosen by ordinary people.

Even after Jackson left office, his association with the donkey endured. An 1837 political caricature depicted him tugging on the reins of a stubborn donkey, symbolizing his continued influence within the Democratic Party. However, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the donkey became firmly established as the symbol of the Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Republican Party adopted the elephant as its symbol during the 1864 presidential election. The use of the elephant was associated with the pro-Lincoln periodical “Father Abraham.” This publication featured a banner-bearer elephant, symbolizing the Union’s triumph in the Civil War. The phrase “seeing the elephant” was commonly used to mean “get in the fight” during that era.

The credit for popularizing these symbols largely goes to the renowned political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast gained fame during the Civil War for his illustrations depicting the conflict. He is also credited with shaping the modern image of Santa Claus. In his political career, Nast exposed the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan, supported Ulysses Grant’s presidential campaign, and exposed Boss Tweed’s corrupt political machine.

Nast’s political cartoons played a pivotal role in solidifying the donkey and the elephant as party symbols. In 1870, he published the cartoon “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion,” which depicted the donkey symbolizing the “Copperhead Democrats” kicking a lifeless lion representing the late Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Nast used this imagery to criticize the Copperhead Democrats’ stance on the Civil War.

In 1871, Nast once again utilized the elephant in a cartoon to caution Republicans about the potential consequences of infighting within the party. This illustration, published in Harper’s Weekly, highlighted the need for party unity. It wasn’t long before these symbols became ingrained in the American political landscape.

Relevance of Political Symbols

The use of the donkey and elephant as symbols for political parties has a long history, but is it still relevant in today’s political landscape? Some argue that these symbols are outdated and fail to capture the complexities of modern politics, while others believe they provide a sense of tradition and identity for the parties.

Political Symbols and Stereotyping

Do political symbols like the donkey and elephant perpetuate stereotypes about the parties they represent? Critics argue that these symbols can oversimplify and caricature political ideologies, while supporters contend that they serve as shorthand for voters to identify with a party’s core values.

Evolving Symbolism

Symbols can evolve, and the donkey and elephant have certainly changed in meaning since their inception. How has the symbolism of these animals shifted over the years, and what impact has this had on the parties they represent?

Alternative Political Symbols

Are there more suitable symbols that could represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the 21st century? Some propose that the parties adopt new symbols that better align with their modern identities and values. What could these alternative symbols be, and how might they reflect the parties’ ideologies?

The Role of Political Cartoons

Political cartoons, like those created by Thomas Nast, played a significant role in popularizing the donkey and elephant symbols. What is the influence of political cartoons in shaping public perception of political parties and their symbols? Do they still hold the same sway in today’s digital age of political communication?


Q: Are the donkey and elephant symbols still relevant in modern politics?

A: The relevance of these symbols is a matter of debate. Some argue that they oversimplify complex political ideologies, while others see them as enduring symbols that provide party identity. Whether they are relevant today depends on one’s perspective.

Q: Do these symbols perpetuate stereotypes about the parties?

A: Critics suggest that these symbols can reinforce stereotypes, but it’s essential to recognize that they are shorthand for party affiliation rather than comprehensive representations of party platforms. The degree to which they perpetuate stereotypes varies among individuals.

Q: How have the meanings of the donkey and elephant symbols evolved?

A: Both symbols have evolved since their inception. Andrew Jackson transformed the donkey into a positive representation of the common man. The elephant’s meaning shifted from representing the Union’s triumph in the Civil War to symbolizing the Republican Party’s unity.

Q: Are there alternative symbols suggested for the Democratic and Republican parties?

A: Some propose adopting new symbols that better align with modern party identities. However, these suggestions remain a topic of discussion and have not been officially adopted by the parties.

Q: How did political cartoons influence the use of these symbols?

A: Political cartoons, particularly those by Thomas Nast, played a significant role in popularizing the donkey and elephant symbols. They helped shape public perception of the parties and their symbols. Today, political cartoons continue to have an impact on political communication.

Other Animal Symbols in Politics

  • Eagle in the United States The bald eagle serves as a prominent symbol in American politics and represents the United States as a whole. It appears on the Great Seal of the United States and is associated with qualities such as freedom, strength, and patriotism.
  • Lion in the United Kingdom The lion is often used as a symbol in British politics and is closely tied to the monarchy. It appears on the royal coat of arms and represents courage and the monarchy’s historical significance.
  • Bear in Russia The bear has long been a symbol of Russia, representing the strength and power of the nation. It is often used in political imagery to convey Russia’s might on the global stage.
  • Rooster in France The rooster, known as the “coq gaulois,” is a symbol of France and its national identity. It is often used in political cartoons and imagery to represent French pride and patriotism.
  • Panda in China The giant panda is a symbol of China and is frequently used in Chinese politics and diplomacy. It represents China’s peaceful intentions and is often employed in international relations to convey a friendly image.
  • Camel in Saudi Arabia The camel is a symbol of Saudi Arabia, reflecting the nation’s history and its significance in the desert landscape. It represents endurance, resilience, and the traditions of the Arabian Peninsula.

The donkey and the elephant, initially born from the heat of political battles and the pen of a talented cartoonist, have transcended their origins to become enduring symbols of American politics.

Scroll to top