It was on this day, 15 January 1870, that the famous American editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast–also known for taking down the Tammany Hall ring and its boss William Magear Tweed through is political cartoons–cemented the jackass as the symbol of the Democratic Party.
However, contrary to conventional thinking, Nast wasn’t the first person to associate the jackass to the Democratic Party. During the election of 1828, opponents of Andrew Jackson labeled him a “jackass” for his beliefs. Jackson embraced the image and often used it in his own campaign imagery. The Democratic Party had been associated, in one way or another, with the Jackass since.
But what about the elephant? Well, we can thank Nast for that one, too. In an 1874 cartoon, Nast has the Democratic ass hiding in a lion’s costume frightening the forest animals (labelled as various newspapers) and the elephant (“Republican vote”). The issue at hand was whether or not U.S. Grant would run for an unprecedented third term as President. Here’s a link to Harper’s detailed description of the cartoon.
After this cartoon ran, the Republicans quickly adopted the elephant as their symbol and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a side note: Nast is also credited with creating the first images of a modern Santa Claus.