Elephant and donkey: Why these symbols are used prominently in US politics

Donkey traced to 1828 for Democrats, Elephant came later for Republicans in 1874.

Elephant and donkey: Why these symbols are used prominently in US politics

The two main political parties in the US are symbolized by two distinct animals: an elephant for Republicans and donkey for Democrats.

The two animals appear every election cycle, with illustrations of donkeys and elephants showing up in countless political cartoons, campaign ads and internet memes.

The reasoning behind both animals dates back to the 19th century, between 150 to 200 years ago.

During the 1828 presidential campaign for Andrew Jackson, who became the seventh US president, his opponents called him a jackass, which is a less-flattering term for a donkey.

Instead of rejecting the derogatory term, Jackson embraced it, and rather than be offended by the name-calling, he was amused by it and used the image of a donkey in his campaign posters.

Jackson went on to defeat incumbent John Quincy Adams to serve as America’s first Democratic president using the jackass as the party's symbol.

However, it took several decades before the donkey became synonymous with the entire Democratic party when political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize the animal by using it in his cartoons during the 1870s.

The elephant took a different road to become the symbol of the opposing party.

The Republican Party itself was formed in 1854, and six years later, Abraham Lincoln became its first member elected to the White House in 1860.

During the American Civil War, which began in 1861 during Lincoln's presidential term, the image of an elephant was featured as a Republican symbol in at least one political cartoon and a newspaper illustration.

Soldiers used the term “seeing the elephant” as an expression meaning experiencing combat, and Nast later translated the animal into his political cartoons portraying the Republican party.

In 1874, Nast used the elephant in Harper's Weekly magazine, and that is when the elephant started to take hold as the Republican party's symbol and is now synonymous with the party.

Two different animals. Two different paths. Two different parties: the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant.