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This Day in History: The Democratic Party, the donkey, & the Father of the Political Cartoon

On this day in 1870, a popular cartoonist publishes an image that would ultimately connect the Democratic Party with the donkey.

Have you ever wondered how Democrats ended up with a donkey as their symbol? It’s not exactly the most impressive animal. Give credit to Thomas Nast, the “Father of the Political Cartoon,” who did not like the Democratic Party. He consistently used the donkey to represent Democrats. Political cartoons were more important back then, and the idea stuck.

The Smithsonian Magazine explains: “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.”

Nast’s cartoon of January 15, 1870, showed a “live jackass kicking a dead lion.” The jackass represented a group of northern Democrats called the Copperheads. The dead lion represents Abraham Lincoln’s recently deceased Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast thought that the Copperheads were disrespecting Lincoln’s legacy.

Although Nast can be credited with popularizing the use of the Democratic donkey, he was not the first to use the image. The donkey had been briefly used in the 1828 presidential election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. (Jackson was the “jackass”!) That brief usage did not stick as Nast’s cartoons in the 1870s would.

Nast later drew a cartoon that would give Republicans their elephant.

On November 7, 1874, he drew a cartoon in which a donkey was dressed as a lion. That donkey represented the Democratic media. Nast thought that the media was trying to scare people out of supporting Ulysses S. Grant's policies. The caption read: “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.”

One of these “foolish Animals” was an elephant, representing Republican voters. The Smithsonian notes that 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.”

Whatever his rationale, Nast’s choices stuck.

Interestingly, the Democratic Party has never officially adopted the donkey, although the Republican Party has adopted its elephant.

P.S. Some people would claim that James Gillray is the “Father of the Political Cartoon.” I have no opinion. Either way, Nast was very influential. I’ve attached snapshots of his two cartoons.

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