Quick—what are the animals that symbolize the two major political parties in the United States? The donkey and the elephant—easy, right? But ever stop to think about how these animals became the symbols of the two parties in the first place? Believe it or not, both symbols have roots in humor … kind of. In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson of the Democratic Party was running against John Quincy Adams. While campaigning, Adams constantly referred to Jackson as a jackass. Horrible, right? Well, Adams’ name-calling backfired because Jackson actually found the label quite humorous and began using the image of a donkey in his campaign posters. Jackson ultimately defeated Adams and became the first Democratic president of the United States.
In 1854, the Republican Party was formed. The image of an elephant can be traced back to the mid-1850s in a cartoon about the party, but it was more commonly known as a symbol among soldiers. A picture of an elephant meant that soldiers were experiencing combat. Historians, however, agree that the donkey and the elephant became common symbols of the Democratic and Republican Party respectively, because political cartoonist Thomas Nast often used these animals to depict each party in his not-so-nice or nasty (get it?) cartoons.