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Political Parties and Symbols: Origins and Meanings

Updated on October 04, 2016
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Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to history and politics.


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What is the Origin and Meaning of Some Widely Used 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.

A Political Symbol in the United States

American-flag motifs are often used to express patriotism.
American-flag motifs are often used to express patriotism. | Source

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.

Political Parties of the Left and the Right.

Political parties have existed since the time of George Washington
Political parties have existed since the time of George Washington | Source

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.”

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.

An Elephant is Used to Represent the Republican Party

The earliest known representation of the Republican party as an elephant.
The earliest known representation of the Republican party as an elephant. | Source
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. | Source
Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, uses an elephant to represent the Republican party.
Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, uses an elephant to represent the Republican party. | Source

Why did the Donkey and the Elephant Become the Symbol 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.

Political Party Symbols

The symbols of the Democratic and Republican Parties.
The symbols of the Democratic and Republican Parties. | Source

Why are Democrats Associated with Blue and Republicans with 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.

Do you want to understand politics better?

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

Just for Fun.

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© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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    • HeatherHutchinson profile image

      HeatherHutchinson 2 years ago

      Great article - nicely written!!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Heather. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 2 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      That was very interesting. I didn't know where the terms "right" and "left" originated. This is a fun one no matter which side of the king's table one sits.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Well said, Iris. Thanks for stopping by.

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 2 years ago from Nibiru

      Well, i leaned a lot Catherine, nice info

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Clive. I thought it was all really interesting--why we have political parties, why they are called "left" and "right", why one is an elephant and one is a donkey, and why one is "red" and the other "blue." I rushed to get this done by Election Day. I hope it reminds everyone who is eligible to vote in the USA to go vote on November 4, 2014.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very interesting historical accounts of parties, symbols and phrases. I have never even wondered how the donkey and elephants become symbols. Thanks for making us aware. Voted Up!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very interesting and informative hub!

      I am sure, many people do not know about the history, origin, meanings of catchphrases and symbols of these political parties.

      Thanks for the education!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you stopping by and commenting on my hub about political parties and symbols. Understanding the origins helps us to understand the present.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you MsDora for your comment. It was nice to know that the Democratic Party never chose to be represented by a jackass. Back in the 1800's political cartoons were treated like front page news.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I used to teach U.S. History, so I was aware of much of this, but you managed to throw in some facts I didn't know. Thank you for that.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks billybuc. It's nice to have the seal of approval from a history teacher. I find no matter how much we know, we can always find something new to learn.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      This is the first I have discovered the meaning between left and right. Your certainly made this an interesting read on political issues. Thank you for the education.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Teaches12345: Thank you for coming by to read and comment. It is so interesting to find out the meaning behind these political terms that we hear everyday.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 2 years ago from Arkansas USA

      As frustrated as politics is making me these days, it's still fascinating to learn about the background of political parties and symbols. I have to wonder what my grandchildren will have to read on the topic in 10 or 15 or 20 years. Thanks for your input on the topic!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Susan, So glad you enjoyed reading about the history of political parties and symbols. I'm working on another one right now that will remind you even more about how frustrated you feel. Thanks for reading and commenting--political clichés. I'm doing it with a light touch, so maybe you will laugh.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Awesome hub! Let us not also forget that the Republicans conveniently forget their strict constructionist view of the constitution when it comes to declarations of war. Oh, and I also am obligated to mention that they forget the part about the postal service being guaranteed by the Constitution. This was very interesting and well written. Great hub!

    • misterhollywood profile image

      John Hollywood 2 years ago from Hollywood, CA

      Loved this Hub and the neutral political approach you took. Very informative!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Mel. I agree with you, but I tired to stay away from a discussion of issues and just about the history of parties and symbols. Thanks for letting me know that you found the hub interesting and well-written.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Misterhollywood. See the above answer to Mel. My goal was not to be political, but just to explain the origins of symbols and parties. I try to be objective. Thanks for your comment.

    • Sara Jofre profile image

      Sarah 2 years ago from Portugal

      Nice article! very well written. I have a hard time understanding the politics of US, this helped ;)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Sara. I have a hard time understanding the politics of the U.S. and I live here. I'm glad this helped.

    • peoplepower73 profile image

      Mike Russo 2 years ago from Placentia California

      Wow! very informative. I had no idea about the origins of the symbols and the terminology. I loved the video. It's very interesting that we think this country can go into other countries and try to set-up democracies when ours was so conflicted and still is. Our congress and parties today have been bought by the elitists, big moneyed interest. They control both the state levels and the federal levels of our government. Maybe that is the natural order of things, where big money finally wins out. Thanks for this hub. Voting up, sharing and all the other good stuff.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Peoplepower73, Thank you do much for your spirited endorsement of my article about political symbols and parties. I agree with you about big money controlling everything. The only way to change that is to get informed and vote.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 22 months ago from Orlando Florida

      misterhollywood: When I do anything controversial I try to write as an objective reporter. Although my bias is probably evident if you look for it. Thanks for the comment. I appear to have overlooked it way back when you first wrote.

    • Marguerite 8 months ago

      I am a teacher and love this bit of our countries' history. Thanks for the refresher

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 8 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks, Marguerite; I'm always glad to get a compliment from a teacher. Perhaps this is something you can lose in a lesson plan for your students.

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