“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” — Will Rogers

With Maine’s primary day, June 14, soon to be upon us, this seems like a good time to take a look at some of the words (the ones fit to print, anyway) that have been used to describe our major political parties over the years. Many of these words have been the names of various animals and even a few colors.

Political nicknames are not new to campaigns. For example, in the 1828 presidential contest, when Andrew Jackson ran against President John Quincy Adams, the incumbent’s National Republican Party used “A. Jackson’s” name to refer to him as “a jackass,” which, of course, is a male donkey (females are “jennies”).

During the presidential campaign of 1844, candidate Henry Clay’s Whig Party used a raccoon as its mascot because it wanted to be associated with independent frontiersmen and their coonskin caps.

In that same election, the Democrats of James K. Polk’s party went with a rooster, which was used in “rude and offensive caricatures” of the other party. It’s pretty easy to imagine the level to which the name-calling in that campaign devolved.

In 1870 Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast called one of his drawings “A Live Jack-Ass Kicking a Dead Lion,” in which the jackass represented the Northern Democrats, and the lion was President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast’s cartoons are generally considered the main reason why the Democrats’ mascot evolved from a rooster to a donkey.


In 1874, Nast depicted the Republican Party as an elephant that’s about to walk off a cliff in a cartoon called “The Third Term Panic.” It would be another five years before Nast would use both the donkey (known for its vigilance and hard work) and the elephant (for its strength and endurance) in the same cartoon.

Though not entirely political, there’s also the story of how we came to get the teddy bear in 1902. It was late that year that President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt came up empty during a bear hunt in Mississippi. To remedy the situation, his companions cornered a young bear and tied it to a tree for him to shoot.

TR’s refusal to shoot the helpless animal became the basis for a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in the Washington Post two days later. Berryman’s drawing was noticed by Brooklyn candy store owner Morris Michtom, who, with the help of his wife, began making  stuffed animals they called “teddy’s bear.” The rest is stuffed animal history.

Speaking of animals, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” said Roosevelt a decade later, while giving a speech shortly after having been shot by a would-be assassin, the bullet still lodged in the right side of his chest. “Bull Moose” was the nickname given to his centrist Progressive Party, which lost the race for the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, based on the characteristics of strength and vigor often used by Roosevelt to describe himself.

Though the term had been around for decades, Roosevelt was probably the first person to whom the acronym “RINO” (Republican in name only) was applied. Nowadays some pundits are saying that the word has been “weaponized” by a recent former president to describe those he deems disloyal.

And, yes, there are also DINOs (Democrat in name only) such as those centrist Democrats who joined the “Blue Dog” caucus, a term coined by Texas Congressman Pete Geren to describe members of his party who’d “turned blue” after having been left out in the cold or “choked blue by Democrats on the left.” The group met in offices that featured the artwork of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, whose paintings featured blue dogs.

With all the vitriol in today’s politics, I’m becoming more and more inclined to agree with Mark Twain, who wrote, “In truth I care little about any party’s politics – the man (and woman) behind it is the important thing.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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