the Donkey and the Elephant
How did Republicans pick the elephant, and Democrats the donkey, to represent their parties?
They didn't pick these labels – 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 – see below.*
There are a couple of explanations for the use of the donkey as a political symbol for Democrats. Its origins are in the 1828 presidential campaign -- during which 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, to be revived again by Thomas Nast in his 1870's cartoons.
Another explanation is simply the influence of cartoonist Thomas Nast. His original interpretation used the donkey to stand in for a Democrat-leaning newspaper scaring away Republican voters. In his cartoons a duplicitous donkey attacks a timid and clumsy behemoth elephant. The donkey and elephant became handy symbols for other cartoonists. Popular recognition and acceptance of those images overrode the parties’ own wishes. The Democrat and Republican parties came to accept the reality that the symbols had stuck, like it or not. So, over time, Republicans came to portray the elephant emblem as a sign of strength and intelligence. Democrats seized the "jackass" label, and transformed the figure into a clever and courageous donkey. As is still true today, it's all in the spin!
* Thomas Nast and the "Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874."
In 1874, a hoax was 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."
Nast combined these two elements together for the first time in an 1874 cartoon for Harper's Weekly. He had a donkey disguised as a lion trying to scare away the animals in a forest. The donkey was a symbol for the New York Herald; the lion-skin costume was a symbol for a scare tactic [the paper crying wolf with "Caesarism"], and the animals in the forest were the symbol for the newspaper's hoax about zoo animals in Central Park.
One of the animals frightened by the donkey's roar of Caesarism was an elephant – a symbol for Republican voters, who were abandoning President Grant, and in Nast's view, about to fall into the Democrats' trap.