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How the Jackass Became a Democrat

By John Mattingly
Andrew Jackson was called a jackass by his opponents in the 1828 presidential campaign as a reaction to his slogan, “Let the people rule.”

Some Republicans went so far as to suggest that letting the “people” rule would be the same as herding a bunch of jackasses into Washington D.C., giving them the right vote with their ears, and hoping for the best.

Instead of refuting the accusation, Andrew Jackson shrewdly embraced it, thus turning it to his advantage. He pointed to the virtues of the jackass, all of which are also virtues of a good Democrat: persistence, loyalty, humility, and an unfailing ability to carry the load. Jackson even put a donkey on his campaign posters.

The strategy worked. Jackson not only won the election, but went on to become one of the United States’ more colorful and influential presidents; but not without controversy in his time. During his term as president, Jackson refused to re-charter the National Bank, and cartoons of the day characterized him as a stubborn jackass.

The first purely political cartoon depicting a jackass as a Democrat was in 1837, after Jackson had retired from office, but was still seen as the leader of the Democratic Party. The cartoon showed Jackson pulling at a stubborn jackass, over the title, “A modern Balaam and his Ass.”

In 1870, political cartoonist Thomas Nast published a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly showing a donkey kicking a dead lion, representing Lincoln’s Secretary of War Ed Stanton, then deceased. Nast intended the donkey to represent an anti-war sentiment with which he disagreed.

Nast was such a respected and well-watched political cartoonist that he is largely credited with advancing and solidifying the image of the jackass with the Democratic Party. Likewise, it was his cartoons that put the elephant in as mascot of the Republicans.

References of association between politicians and jackasses have endured since Jackson’s day. Adlai Stevenson, when defending the jackass against the elephant, said, “The elephant has thick skin, a head full of ivory, and, as everyone who has seen a circus parade knows, proceeds best by grasping the tail of its predecessor.”

Lyndon Johnson was overheard saying, “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm.”

Mark Twain had to weigh in: “Concerning the difference between the human and the jackass, some say there is none, but this wrongs the jackass.”

In 2008, Curtis Imrie brought a live jackass named Mordecai to the convention in Denver, the first official live mascot of the Democrat Party. Someone at the Convention was overheard saying, “When you look at Washington D.C. these days, and the way politicians act, it’s hard to believe there were only two jackasses on Noah’s Ark.”


John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.