Many attribute the first use of the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party in the US to the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). He can certainly be credited with giving both the Democratic and Republican parties their mascots, and assigned the donkey to the Democratic Party. Nast’s depiction of the unofficial mascot of the Democratic Party was never meant to be flattering, but nevertheless, the Democrats took on what was initially an insult and made it their own.
As symbol of the Republican party, the elephant represented Nast’s political sentiments toward his own party, and also some of his despair that some of the qualities associated with that party seemed to be waning. Nast also wasn’t the first to use this symbol. His first drawing of the elephant occurred in 1874, but some of Lincoln’s campaign materials had a picture of an elephant too, and another cartoon depicting the party as an elephant was popularly viewed in 1872.
Nast’s initial drawing occurred in a cartoon titled “The Third Panic,” and it depicts the elephant as bounding into a pit across broken boards with the words inflation, reform, and repudiation written on them. Nast’s drawing represents his view of the party’s decline, especially in light of a financial panic at the time. According to Nast, the Republicans were falling victim to scare tactics of the Democrats and abandoning their party’s platform.
Prior to Nast’s use of the elephant, the eagle had been a common symbol of the Republican party, but in part due to Nast’ prowess as a cartoonist, the elephant replaced the eagle in short order, and the Republican party officially adopted the large animal as its symbol. Though Nast’s depiction was not that flattering and emphasized his own worries about a changing party, the elephant was still a large animal, and thought to have both dignity and strength. These qualities were considered admirable.
Today’s most common representation of the elephant incorporates the colors and stars of the American flag. This symbol of the Republican Party is not quite as realistically drawn as the counterpart Democrat donkey. Yet it is still quite recognizable as the political pachyderm symbolizing strength, wisdom, long memory and the like.
It’s not a stretch to associate the elephant with many Republican platforms, though it can be said that Nast’s political fears did materialize. In a way, especially moving into the Great Depression and thereafter the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the parties dynamically changed. There is almost a total flip of platforms in the modern parties, though not an exchange of symbols.