From tokens to ballots: US Democratic donkeys and Republican elephants
The US political system is different from the European one in terms of the role played by organized political parties. US parties are less structured than European ones yet much more persistent: no US presidency or US congressional majority has been acheived by parties other than the Republicans and the Democrats since 1852. Their light ideology has been a factor of flexibility that allowed adaptation through time for both parties. The Republican party elected personalities as different as Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan, spanning from progressive positions to very conservative ones.
Yet US parties share with their European counterparts the use of strong and uniform political symbols on which they rely for immediate identification. The Republicans are represented by an elephant and the Democrats by the donkey. In fact this common ground is only apparent.
The Republican and Democratic symbols were not introduced by the parties themselves, but by critics with a satirical intent. Unlike their European equivalents of the nineteenth and twentieth century, donkeys and elephants therefore were not chosen with a programmatic meaning and did not try to reflect the core objectives of the party. Those symbols coexisted with others for almost a century and were in fact overshadowed by the portraits and names of Presidential candidates, which always dominated political campaigns in the US, with a very limited role for parties. The history of those symbols is complex and not linear.
The opponents of the candidacy of Andrew Jackson for President in 1828 dubbed him “jackass” and Jackson apparently reused the donkey with a positive spin on some of his posters, but that was shortlived. The donkey appeared in some satirical anti-Jackson tokens during his controversial presidency (1829-37). We have here one such token, undated but from the time of the polemic on the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States (1832-36) caused by Andrew Jackson or the ensuing financial crisis (panic of 1837, a consequence of boom and bust cycles in banking facilitated by the elimination of a federal bank). Jackson vetoed the renewal of Bank’s charter and then withdrew all government funds from it, considering that it had too much power and favoured only the rich. He was attacked by the Whig party, for endangering credit and commerce for populist motives. In the token Jackson is shown inside a coffer, wearing his uniform as a General, carrying a sword in one hand and a moneybag in the other, and declaring “I take the responsibility” to raid the Bank of the United States. On the other side a donkey is displayed as an example of “Roman firmness” (implying in fact stubborn stupidity) and the caption “The Constitution as I understand it”: “Veto”!
Collections of propaganda material (tokens, buttons, ballots and paper ephemera, particularly using the author’s collection and catalogues covering the period 1789-1972 by Theodore L. Hake), do not show signs that the donkey or the hog, both used as insults to Jacksonian Democrats by their opponents, were later endorsed by Democrats. In fact five-pointed stars (adopted in 1852) or roosters were usually used as Democratic symbols. In 1880 the Democratic party candidate, General Winfield Scott Hancock employed crowing roosters, used up to the 1940's by the Democratic party as its main symbol (here a rooster button used by the FDR campaigns is illustrated).
The use of a donkey to disparage the Democratic President Ulysses Grant in the 1870’s by the caricaturist Thomas Nast revived the use of the donkey, but did not immediately enter political campaign symbolism. With the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of W. J. Bryan (1896-1900-1908), the donkey appears more frequently as a Democratic party symbol alongside the previous ones, in a competition animated by the various private commercial producers of political paraphernalia, which came to influence political messaging and makes it rather unclear when a clear choice of symbol was made, if it ever happened formally. What is clear is that from the 1950’s onwards the donkey was unchallenged as a Democratic symbol, meant to embody reliance, courage and fighting spirit.
Other animals were briefly called upon to identify the political positioning of candidates, from the bull moose of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive party in 1912 to the eagle used by former southern Democrats in several campaigns, or by the Ross Perot “United We stand America” movement in 1992.
The Republican party also adopted the American bald eagle as its symbol after it was founded in 1854, alternated with personalized symbols of individual candidates (Lincoln’s “Honest Abe, Railsplitter” in 1860 to highlight his humble upbringing and popular origins or Harrison sometimes was associated to an upraised arm holding a hammer in 1888, a symbol of protection for American workers and manufacturers against democratic free traders, later used by some socialist groups). However the Republicans were also the victims of political cartoonist Thomas Nast who introduced the elephant in a cartoon that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1874, showing a donkey clothed in lion's skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo, including an elephant defined as “The Republican Vote”. Republicans also resisted the popular identification with an animal with qualities as well as caricatural elements. Only in Harrison’s 1888 and 1892 presidential campaigns did the term Grand Old Party and the elephant coupled with the acronym GOP appear for the first time on campaign buttons and materials. As in the Democratic case other symbols persisted alongside the elephant for some time but overall the Republicans seem to have embraced the elephant’s strength a bit faster than the Democrats did with the donkey.
The opposition between the donkey and the elephant produced some interesting parallel depictions during the Great Depression and the 1932 election, pitching Hoover against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and here illustrated. Democrats invited electors to “kick out Depression with a democratic vote” and produced buttons with a mobile donkey which would kick away an elephant by pulling an attached string. For Republicans recovery instead required a serious uphill push for the US economy, “it’s an elephant’s job, no time for donkey business”, showing an hysterical and confused donkey kicking the air without any result.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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