This symbol of the party was born in the imagination of
cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper's
Weekly on November 7, 1874.
An 1860 issue of Railsplitter and an
1872 cartoon in Harper's Weekly
connected elephants with
Republicans, but it was Nast who
provided the party with its symbol.
Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the
Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett's New York
Herald raised the cry of "Caesarism" in connection with
the possibility of a thirdterm try for President Ulysses S.
Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic
politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant's second term
and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect
While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing
a crown, the Herald involved itself in another
circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area.
This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a
delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a
story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had
broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York's
Central Park in search of prey.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the
Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for
Harper's Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the
Herald) wearing a lion's skin (the scary prospect of
Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest
(Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: "An
ass having put on a lion's skin roamed about in the forest
and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals
he met within his wanderings."
One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant,
representing the Republican vote - not the party, the
Republican vote - which was being frightened away from
its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a
subsequent cartoon on November 21, 1874, after the
election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed
up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating
the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its
normal allegiance. Other cartoonists picked up the symbol,
and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became
the party itself: the jackass, now referred to as the donkey,
made a natural transition from representing the Herald to
representing the Democratic party that had frightened the
--From William Safire's New Language of Politics,
Revised edition, Collier Books, New York, 1972.