We here at the TeamPurpleMN blog LOVE this question because it allows us to discuss one of the most obscure people in American Political History, a 19th century Norman Rockwell named Thomas Nast. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, most haven’t although he is probably the single most important person in American iconography.
Nast was a mediocre New York artist striving to earn a living when he was hired by the New York Illustrated News and eventually Harper’s Weekly at a time the publications were booming, during and then just after the Civil War ended. People at the time wanted to make copy instead of war and providing reading material about what was happening in government was a lucrative business. His work was essentially to illustrate, in a very simple form, stories and op-eds. What would eventually happen is that the format would become the standard on op-ed pages that continue to this day.
He showed a real knack for thoughtful pieces that put serious complex issues of the time into proper context. Often, his political cartoons supported American Indians and Chinese Americans. He advocated the abolition of slavery, opposed racial segregation, and deplored the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. One of his more famous cartoons, titled “Worse than Slavery”, showed a despondent black family holding their dead child as a schoolhouse is destroyed by arson, as two members of the Ku Klux Klan look on. But what really kicked his career into high gear was New York politics, and in particular Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall scandals. Stories about graft and corruption don’t always resonate, but coupled with Nast’s illustrations the stories put pressure on elected officials to clean up the government with reform. Tweed was so worried about Nast’s campaign against him that he had a friend bribe him $100,000 to quit the paper; Nast refused.
Nast’s caricatures became so famous many of the shorthand symbols he created over the years became iconic. His depictions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam are widely credited with how we conceive of the characters today. It was Nast who popularized the elephant as the mascot for the growing Republican party of the day. While the donkey had been used as a mascot for the Democrats for years, it was Nast’s use of the mascot in his cartoons that made it viral in its day. So prolific was Nast’s work, that today the award for Editorial Cartoon work every year is called the “Thomas Nast Award.”
Which bring us full circle to today. There really isn’t a good reason elephants are the GOP mascot and donkeys are the democrats’. In fact, perhaps other animals would be more appropriate. Maybe an ostrich for the republicans based on their propensity to “bury their head in the sand” when problems arise? Perhaps a cat for the democrats based on their loose affiliation and the party’s inability to herd themselves into a cogent organization? Do you have a better suggestion? Put it in the comments and let us know!