You might be wondering—now that the Canadian elections are over and the American election is really just getting started despite its already year-long slog— why the donkey and the elephant are the symbols of the two main political parties in America. Your curiosity is about to be satiated.
Almost two hundred years ago, before Canada was a country, a lawyer and plantation owner named Andrew Jackson was running against the incumbent John Quincy Adams to become the seventh president of the United States. The politics of the time were in some ways not so different from the politics of today—namely, it involved a degree of mudslinging. Jackson, the Democratic candidate, was dismissed by Republicans as a stubborn donkey (though a more vilifying term was generally used). In a show of defiance, Jackson decided to co-opt the donkey as a symbol of his campaign, and he went on to win and hold the presidency for two terms.
The donkey symbol was forgotten when Jackson left office, until about forty years later when political cartoonist Thomas Nast revived it in his caricatures to represent various Democratic figures, including the Democratic party as a whole.
An early such cartoon in an 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicts a donkey brazenly kicking a dead lion with its hind legs. The donkey represents a group of anti-civil war Democrats called the Copperheads (you can tell, because “Copperhead Democrats” is inexplicably stamped on the donkey’s flank in that special unambiguous way of political cartoons), and the lion represents Edwin M. Stanton (again with the stamping), who was Abraham Lincoln’s late Secretary of War. The comic portrays Nast’s opinion of the way the Democratic press was treating Stanton so soon after his death.
Then there is the 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon entitled “Third term panic” depicting a bucking and braying donkey dressed in the skin of a lion with various animals fleeing from his ruckus. The N.Y. Herald, a Democratic news outlet of the time, had been opposing a third term presidency for Republican Ulysses S. Grant, raising fears that it would lead America down the road to dictatorship and authoritarianism. They called it “Caesarism”. Some Republicans seemed to be buying into the Herald’s ideas and it prompted Thomas Nast to draw this cartoon. The donkey represents the Democratic New York Herald. (This was an intentional back reference to Andrew Jackson’s use of the donkey as his political symbol.) The lion skin is (of course) labelled “Caesarism”. The fleeing animals all represent various Republican entities that are failing to recognize the lion as a fraud. Among the animals is a giraffe (“N.Y. Tribune”), a unicorn (“N.Y. Times”), an owl (“N.Y. World”), an ostrich (“Temperance”) burying its head, and an elephant (“The Republican Vote”) stumbling into a quagmire of “Inflation”, “Repudiation”, and “CHAOS”. Nast evidently did not like the N.Y. Herald’s brouhaha nor the Republicans’ concessions.
But that is all beside the point. The interesting thing for our purposes, which you may have noticed, is that here we have what many consider the one of the first instances of Republicans being represented by the elephant. Nast continued to use the elephant and the donkey as stand-ins for Republicans and Democrats in his cartoons, and as political cartoons carried much more cultural significance at the time than they do now, the animals came to be associated with their respective parties in broader American society.
One likely reason for the endurance of the association is that both of the animals lend themselves easily to both positive and negative descriptions, and so they can be used by either side as a logo to rally behind or a symbol to ridicule depending on one’s allegiances. The donkey can be stalwart and humble for a Democrat, or stubborn and brash for a Republican; the elephant can be noble and strong for a Republican, or clumsy and slow for a Democrat. Everyone is happy!
And so the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant remain symbols to this day, and now you know why two unlikely creatures became such iconic American party animals.