Iconic Political Symbols Stand the Test of Time
by Ian Hunt, Chief of Acquisitions and Research, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
The Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey are two iconic symbols that have endured for more than a century and a half, and they remain relevant long after the faces of the politicians they represent have faded from memory. The origin of the Democratic donkey has been well documented. During the 1828 Presidential campaign, supporters of John Quincy Adams began mockingly referring to Andrew Jackson as a “jackass” for his stubborn attitudes and lack of social polish. Rather than being insulted by the label, Jackson adopted the image of the donkey as a hard-working, humble, and loyal figure, thereby opening the door for future Democratic candidates to be both positively and negatively identified with the donkey.
The image of the elephant is a bit more complicated. Most historians point to the cartoonist Thomas Nast’s November 7th, 1874, Harper’s Weekly depiction of an elephant labeled “the Republican vote” as the birth of that symbol. The cartoon featured a group of animals in a forest, each bearing a label for some political constituency, all fleeing from a donkey that wore a banner of the Democratic newspaper the New York Herald but dressed in a lion’s skin. Both the elephant, representing the Republican vote, and a small fox labeled the “democratic party,” hover near the edge of a cliff, dangerously close to toppling over. The caption reads “An Ass, having put on the Lion’s skin, roamed about in the Forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings.” Nast created the image in response to a series of inflammatory editorials in the New York Herald that accused Republican President Ulysses S. Grant of planning to seek a third term. While Nast had previously used other animals to represent the Republican Party, after this cartoon he would begin to gravitate toward the elephant. By 1880 nearly all of his images of the Republican Party used the symbol of the elephant.
While incredibly influential, Nast’s cartoon was certainly not the first appearance in a newspaper of the largest land animal on the planet to represent the Republican Party. That honor would instead go to the Springfield publishers of the Illinois State Journal, William H. Bailhache and Edward L. Baker. It was these gentlemen who on August 9, 1860, reported on a massive campaign rally held for Mr. Lincoln at the fairgrounds in Springfield. The dramatic headline was topped by a cartoon elephant carrying a banner proclaiming “We Are Coming, Clear the Tracks,” while beneath that it read “A Political Earthquake! The Prairies on Fire for Lincoln.” The story, filling 3 and 1/4 columns of text, boasted that more than 75,000 participants had been on hand, and declared that it was “The Biggest Demonstration Ever Held in The West!” The image of the elephant was a clear departure from the more traditional symbols of eagles, flags, and cannon that the Journal had utilized to promote the event in the days leading up to it.
While no specific reason for utilizing the symbol of the elephant was given in the article, the adjectives the writers employed make it abundantly clear: “A veritable political earthquake ... [Never] a larger or more magnificent political demonstration … a monster affair.” It becomes clear that only the immense size, strength, and power of an elephant could adequately describe the energy of the day’s rally. A second, more subtle, impetus for using the elephant may have stemmed from some Republican supporters who played off of the name of Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. They proudly displayed signs announcing “Hannibal Hamlin, the First man who showed the Elephant to the Romans!” These recalled the famous Carthaginian General Hannibal, who in 218 B.C. during the Second Punic War marched an army accompanied by elephants over the Pyrenees and over the Alps into modern-day Italy.
The August 1860 image of the elephant as representative of the Republican Party would be picked up by other papers, and by October was found as far afield as Pennsylvania. Four years later, during the 1864 campaign, various images of elephants would again be used to advertise the strength and power of the Republican Party. While Thomas Nast’s influence in cementing the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party should never be doubted, we now know that the birth of that symbol came in 1860, in Mr. Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois.