It’s No Party Without the Grand Old Pachyderm

Cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1874 Creation Lives Large at 2004 Republican National Convention

Posted September 1, 2004 at 2:42pm

At the Republican National Convention in New York this week, there’s not just an elephant in the room — the pachyderms are everywhere.

The massive mascot dots knick-knacks and official memorabilia alike, outfitted in everything from rhinestones to the classic red, white and blue motif formally adopted by the national party in the 1970s.

And while RNC and NYC Host Committee officials said last week there are no plans to host the most mammoth of GOPers — the Grand Old Pachyderm — tradition suggests it’s not unlikely the animal would make a live appearance during convention festivities, perhaps even on the party circuit. (In 2000, Republican lawmakers were offered free elephant rides at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.)

Of course, the political pachyderm — dubbed “Republic Ann” after the Republican National Committee held a 1966 contest to name the mascot — so closely associated with the party hasn’t always been the group’s sole symbol.

Political icons gained popularity with the advent of the printed ballot, explained Harry Rubenstein, political history curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Around the turn of the century, many state election commissions took over the printing process for ballots, and they required the use of symbols to ease the process for semi-literate and illiterate voters.

“Many of those [commissions] required the parties to identify the symbol to help voters recognize their party, and so what happens is the parties themselves, the state parties, pick a symbol to put on top of the ballot,” Rubenstein said.

The eagle became a popular Republican symbol — at the time, Democrats often used the rooster — replacing the raccoon, which had appeared on party paraphernalia in the late-1800s, according to the tome “Famous First Facts About American Politics.”

Around the same time, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast introduced the elephant icon, using it in an infamous November 1874 cartoon titled, “The Third Term Panic.”

By that time, Nast had already begun to use the donkey to represent the Democratic Party, strengthening the association in cartoons suggesting the party’s unease over a potential third term for then-President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican.

In the 1874 cartoon that cemented the symbols of both parties, Nast depicted various animals representing different issues, all running away from a donkey wearing a lion’s skin, labeled “Caesarism.”

“Nast, an avid Republican, chose a marauding elephant to depict the vote, which the illustrator believed had become aimless and confused,” according to the “Encyclopedia of the Republican Party.” “Subsequent Nast cartoons shifted the animal from merely representing the vote to depicting the party itself. The symbol quickly caught on, and soon Republicans had embraced the pachyderm as their own.”

Similarly, the “Historical Dictionary of the United States Political Parties” notes: “Over time, [Nast] and others came to see the elephant as an appropriate symbol of the party’s size and strength, as well as its ponderousness and unwieldiness.”