Thomas Nast was a German-born American caricaturist and political cartoonist. Featured in Harper's Weekly, his artwork, including his representation of Uncle Sam and the modern version of Santa Claus, was some of the most influential in American culture. Two of his most lasting creations are still in the news today: the Republican Elephant and the Democrat Donkey.
The Democrat Donkey originated with an 1828 political cartoon titled "A Modern Balaam and his Ass." The drawing depicted Andrew Jackson riding and directing a donkey. Jackson was caught in bitter mudslinging and had been labeled a jackass by his opponents. Nast, a strong supporter of Republican President Grant, used the less-than-flattering donkey as the symbol for Democrats. He pitted the image against the strong Republican elephant.
His symbols rang true with many Americans. The elephant remains the official symbol of the Republican Party and the Donkey retains its well known affiliation with the Democratic party though it is no longer the official symbol.
Nast continued to support the Republican party for the rest of his life, going so far as to take control of a failing newspaper and re-tool it as a vehicle for his cartoons in support of Benjamin Harrison's presidential campaign. The impact of his paper was limited and circulation stopped shortly after Harrison's defeat.
In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt sent Nast to Ecuador, South America, as the United State's Consul General. After an outbreak of yellow fever, Nast helped many escape the disease. He was not as fortunate, however, and on December 2, 1902 he passed away from yellow fever. He is interred in The Bronx, New York.