Party symbols drawn from the natural world helped to dramatize political issues to reach 19th century Americans, including those who could not read. The donkey (also known as a jackass) as a Democratic symbol dates back to the late 1820s, when Whig attacks against Andrew Jackson rendered his name as “A. Jack-ass.” Medals illustrated with donkeys and pigs bore slogans criticizing Jackson for removing federal deposits from the Bank of the United States.
Born in Germany, Thomas Nast (1840–1902) immigrated to New York in 1846. Nast’s gifts for illustration and social observation found ready use in national mass-circulation news magazines that did not yet have the means to publish photographs. Nast published more than three thousand drawings, primarily in Harper’s Weekly between 1862 and 1885.
Nast favored Union-affirming policies and enjoyed the relative autonomy to express his political views. Nast's early cartoons skewered the corrupt regime of New York City’s William Marcy “Boss” Tweed. Nast went on to popularize the elephant and donkey as symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.
Nast may have painted this self-portrait around 1884, when he lost his fortune in a Wall Street Ponzi scheme. It is perhaps a self-caricature. Nast renders himself with a furrowed brow, collapsed into a chair. An open drape reveals New York’s Trinity Church, at the foot of Wall Street. Out of favor with his editor, Nast left Harper’s Weekly in 1887. He later joined the Democratic National Committee as a contract cartoonist but never recovered a national audience or financial position.
The Elephant and Donkey
Harper’s Weekly featured Thomas Nast’s Democratic donkey for the first time in 1870. Nast had often used the symbol to represent ignorance. Nast featured an elephant for the first time in 1874 to represent the Republican vote. He rendered the animal, unsure of its own weight, plodding through planks representing its own party platform. Nast’s elephant and donkey appeared together in a cartoon for the first time in 1879.
Democratic and Republican Party leaders would never have chosen the animals that Thomas Nast did to popularize their policies and ideas. The parties typically adopted national symbols, such as the eagle and the flag. After 1840 the Democratic Party often represented itself as a rooster. Such symbols contended, unsuccessfully, with the popularity of donkeys and elephants into the 20th century.