The Origins of the Democratic Symbol

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In 2008, the Democratic Party gathered in Denver for its 2008 convention. There, a donkey named Mordecai became the first official live mascot in the history of the party, giving a new meaning to the expression political animal. This Democratic symbol aimed to provide a few light-hearted moments at the convention. But where did the donkey symbol come from and why did the Democrats affiliate themselves with this member of the horse family that is often ridiculed?

The origins of both the Democratic symbol, the donkey, and the Republican elephant come from Thomas Nast, German-born political cartoonist whose drawings also modernized the image of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam. When he was 6 years old, Nast moves to The Big Apple. He started to demonstrate an artistic ability at an early age, and inspired by New York’s thriving society, he put his social and political knowledge on paper.

Thomas Nast was not very fond of the Copperhead Democrats, Northern Democrats who were against the Civil War. The artist considered them anti-Union racists with a great influence in the North. In 1862, Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly. His first cartoon of the Democratic symbol, the donkey, was published in 1870. Hover, in this first illustration, the donkey, branded as the Copperhead Press, was kicking a deal lion remembering of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary who had just passed away. Nast wanted to emphasize how the Democratic press dishonored Stanton.

The second appearance of the donkey was in an 1874 cartoon about the Democratic complaints against Republican President, Ulysses S. Grant who was compared to Julius Caesar, a greedy dictator trying to gain power. Nast disagreed with the accusations and illustrated the Democratic press as a donkey dressed in the lion’s skin. The cartoon was titled Third Term Panic and the donkey called Caesarian was scaring other animals. He believed that the media, especially the New York Herald, appeared ferocious, when in fact they were harmless and foolish in their panic.

Although Nast’s donkey aimed specific members of the Democratic press and not the entire party, tit quickly became a Democratic symbol. The cartoonist used the animal in many of his drawings, including an 1879 cartoon in which a Democratic Presidential candidate was grabbing the tail of a donkey portraying the Democratic Party. The candidate was trying to stop the donkey from falling into a pit labeled financial chaos. Although the Democratic Party never made the donkey an official symbol, by 1880 it had become a national emblem. The cartoon with the politician grabbing the donkey’s tail was also the beginning of another famous political symbol, the Republican elephant. But that is a different story.