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Political Parties and Symbols: Origins and Meanings

Ms. Giordano is a writer and public speaker who is interested in politics and history.

Some of this history may surprise you!

Some of this history may surprise you!

Origins and Meanings of Political Terms and Symbols

Do you know why the United States has political parties, why certain colors and symbols are associated with these parties, and what the origins and meanings of some common political terms are? Here are some surprising answers to those questions.

Why Do We Have Political Parties?

The Constitution of the United States says nothing about political parties, yet political parties began to form almost from the start of this country. George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton favored a strong central government believing this would bind the 13 individual colonies, now states, into one country. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington’s Secretary of State, opposed this. Jefferson believed that the greatest power should reside with the states since they were closer to the people.

George Washington remained neutral and asked Hamilton and Jefferson to present their opposing views to Congress for a vote. Hamilton’s views won.

However, this was not the end of it. People who favored a strong central government became known as the Federalists and the people who favored Jefferson became known as the Democratic-Republicans.

These developments alarmed Washington who thought the loyalty of citizens should be to the country and not to political parties. He felt political parties would do more harm than good? Was he right? It’s a moot point. We seem to be stuck with political parties.

The modern Democratic Party is descended from the Democratic-Republicans and was founded in 1828. The first Democratic president was Andrew Jackson who served from 1829 to 1837.

The Whig party was formed in 1834 in opposition to President Jackson. The Whig party was dissolved in 1854 when anti-slavery Whigs formed a new party, the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president.

Today the Democratic Party (sometimes called “the left” or the “liberals/progressives”) advocates for a strong central government and The Republican party (sometimes called “the right” or the “conservatives” advocates for state’s rights.

Why Do We Say Left vs. Right?

The terms "left" and "right" were first used during the French Revolution of 1789. The members of the National Assembly who supported the King began to sit on the right side of the King while supporters of the revolution chose to sit on the left side of the King.

The terms left and right came into usage in England and, later in the United with the left coming to stand for transformative ideology and the right standing for the resistance to change in favor of the status quo.

Currently, the left is identified with socialism; the right with capitalism.

The left generally favors a strong central government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution. The right generally favors giving more power to the states and a rigid interpretation of the Constitution.

The left believes that the central government may do anything that is not expressly forbidden by the Constitution. The right believes that the central government may only do what is expressly assigned to it in the Constitution and all other powers go to the individual states. Over the years there has been a tendency for the central government to become more powerful a condition the right refers to as “big government.”

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Beginning about the middle of the twentieth century, the right began to be identified with the idea that religion, specifically Christianity, should play a major role in government, while the left became associated with the idea that government should be neutral on matters of religion as stated in the First Amendment to the constitution.

The First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The definition of left and right is often fluid with ideas that seem more consistent with one side often taking root in the other side. For instance, one might expect Republicans who favor a strict interpretation of the constitution to oppose the intermingling of religion and government, but that is not the case.

Also at one time the Democratic Party was strongest in the South and the Republican Party was strongest in the North. That changed when President Lyndon Johnson, a member of the Democratic Party enacted civil rights legislation which was very unpopular in the South. Now the South is the stronghold of the Republicans.

The earliest known representation of the Republican party as an elephant.

The earliest known representation of the Republican party as an elephant.

Why Did the Donkey and the Elephant Become Symbols of the Parties?

The Democratic Party was first associated with a in 1828 during the campaign of Andrew Jackson, a member of the Democratic Party. His opponents began to refer to him as a “jackass” (a donkey) because of his populist beliefs and his slogan "Let the people rule.” To their surprise and dismay, Jackson appropriated the donkey and started using it in his campaign posters to symbolize the stubbornness of his opponents.

Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, is credited with making the donkey the recognized symbol of the Democratic Party. He used it in a cartoon in Harper's Weekly in 1870 to represent an anti–Civil War faction. By1880, it was widely recognized as the unofficial symbol of the party.

The earliest connection of the elephant to the Republican Party occurred in 1864 during the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. During the Civil War, “seeing an elephant” was slang for engaging in combat, A political cartoon (artist unknown) showed an elephant (which represented Lincoln) holding a banner celebrating Union victories. (The cartoon appeared in a pro-Lincoln campaign newspaper, Father Abraham.)

The political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, is credited with popularizing the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party. He used it in a cartoon that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1874. Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion's skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled "The Republican Vote." Thereafter, the elephant was associated with the Republican Party.

The Republican Party has officially adopted the elephant as their symbol. The Democratic Party has never officially recognized the donkey as their symbol.

Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, uses a donkey to represent the Democratic Party.

Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, uses a donkey to represent the Democratic Party.

Why Are Democrats Blue and Republicans Red?

The terms "blue states" and "red states" appear to have been coined by journalist and host of the NBC political TV show Meet the Press. Tim Russert, during the 2000 presidential election. Previously, the colors red and blue had not been consistently used so that red sometimes represented Republicans and other times represented Democrats.

This reversed a long-standing convention of political colors where red symbols (such as the red flag or red star) were associated with revolutionary movements and blue represented conservative political groups. Some have suggested that red, with its fiery connotations represents the more angry nature of Republican politics whereas blue represents the “cooler heads” of Democratic politics.

A Brief History of U.S. Politics: Fun and Easy to Understand

Just for fun.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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