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Welcome to the two-hundred and eighteenth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous two hundred and seventeen.
Comic Book Legends Revealed is now part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com. I’d especially recommend last week’s Movie Legends Revealed, which was an all-Tom Hanks edition of the column!
COMIC LEGEND: Thomas Nast came up with the idea of having the Democratic Party symbolized by a donkey.
This type of situation comes up frequently – whoever is the most famous user of a particular style or idea often ends up getting the credit for ORIGINATING the idea, whether that is accurate or not. Thomas Nast is quite possibly the most famous editorial cartoonist in United States history, so he often gets credit where it is not due.
One such instance is the creation of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. This is actually even trickier, because if you say “who created the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party?” you’re basically saying, “Who POPULARIZED it,” in which case, yeah, the answer would be Thomas Nast. He popularized the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party.
That’s fair enough.
But he did not ORIGINATE the idea of using a donkey as the symbol for the Democratic Party. In fact, he was over thirty years late to get that honor!
That honor goes to a cartoonist whose name has been lost to history.
In a cartoon published in 1837, outgoing President Andrew Jackson is show trying to still lead the Democrats (his party) even though he is no longer President. The Democrats are symbolized by a donkey (which was basically an animal that Jackson had actually aligned his campaign with originally, as he viewed himself as stubborn as a mule, etc.).
The comic is titled “The Modern Balaam and his ass.”
This is in reference to the Bible story about Balaam who is kept from proceeding because he is stopped by the Angel (working on God’s behalf). Balaam’s donkey actually speaks to him, which is one of the extremely rare examples of an animal speaking in the Bible (by extremely rare, I think it’s one of, like, two animals who talk in the entire Bible). Here is a famous Rembrandt painting of the scene…
So as you can see, the donkey had already been shown to symbolize the Democratic Party decades before Nast came up with the notion in 1870.
In fact, Nast tried pushing the Fox as the symbol of the Democatic Party for awhile, but ended up on the donkey.
Here’s Nast’s first usage of the Donkey to stand for the Democrats – it is Nast complaining about Democrats talking smack about the recently deceased Former U.S. Attorney General, Former U.S. Secretary of War and then current Supreme Court Justice Edwin M. Stanton.
Since Nast was so popular, this cartoon DID lead to the Democrats being associated with the Donkey.
And Nast DID come up with the idea of associating the Republicans with Elephants, so he’s got that going for him!
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