Today in History, January 15: 1870 – “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” “And Such a Lion! and Such a Jackass!” Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast publishes a cartoon which popularizes the Jackass as the symbol for the Democrat party. I enjoyed researching this topic; there are several interesting details. Where to start? Perhaps with Nast himself. A German immigrant, Nast is considered by many to be the father of the modern political cartoon. In addition to the Democrat Jackass, he popularized the Republican Elephant and our conception of Santa Claus. I use the term popularize because he wasn’t the first to use any of these symbols, but he made them known to everyone. The Jack-ass originally became known as a Democrat symbol when someone called President Andrew Jackson a jack-ass, and he decided to “own it.” Among other things he was an abolitionist and a patriot. Which is why Northern Copperheads angered him so. Copperheads were Northern Democrats that were sympathetic to the Confederate (Southern Democrats) cause. Nast considered them racists and traitors. Edwin M. Stanton had been part of President Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”, the Secretary of War who prosecuted the Civil War from Washington and had become respectful and loyal to Lincoln. When Stanton died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1869, the Copperhead Papers in the North continued their criticism of him, speaking ill of the dead. This was the inspiration for Nast’s cartoon.
This isn’t to say Stanton was a lovable character. He angered many in D.C. and in the Army. General William T. Sherman refused to shake his hand at a military review at the close of the war due to Stanton’s treatment of him. Stanton was an opportunist, but he worked hard at his job. I recently listened to a biography of him that was so negative as to lose credibility with me. It was a reminder to check multiple sources, and to attempt objectivity in viewing historical subjects.