On January 15, 1870, journalist Thomas Nast printed the above political cartoon, cementing the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party in the United States. The caption on the donkey reads “Copperheads”, and the caption on the lion reads “Edwin Stanton”.
Prior to the Civil War really getting rolling, the Democratic Party was divided into (at least) two factions, the Copperheads, so named by the Republicans because they opposed the war and wanted an immediate settlement with the South, thus “toxic”, and the “War Democrats” who supported the war as a solution to the secession of Southern states. The Democrats accepted the appellation, instead turning the “head” to be the liberty head on the copper penny. The label stuck, and with this picture, the donkey became the symbol of the Democratic Party to this day.
The Democrats, who championed leniency toward the South after the war, were none too happy with Stanton, who was Secretary of War under Lincoln, and opposed Johnson’s lenient stance toward the South during Reconstruction. When Johnson attempted to fire Stanton, Johnson was impeached – only to have the law that was the basis for his impeachment found to be unconstitutional (Tenure of Office Act)l. The Democrats blamed Stanton for many ills. He continued to oppose them, to the detriment of his health – making speeches outdoors in all kinds of weather – even after leaving his post as Secretary of War. Stanton was appointed to the United States Supreme Court under U.S. Grant – but died four days after his Senate confirmation – thus the picture of the Democrats kicking a dead lion.
Four years later, Thomas Nast did another political cartoon that cemented the image of the elephant as the symbol of the Republican party.