Many of us have seen the Republican Party depicted as an elephant in political satire comic strips. When and how did this start, and why are Republicans forever an elephant (and Democrats a donkey)? It all began on November 7th, 1874 with famous caricaturist and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Nast’s career and cartoons

Thomas Nast was a German-born American famous for his cartoons, especially political satires and caricatures. His work was so influential that he is known as the “Father of the American Cartoon.” Both Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln thanked Nast for his efforts on their behalf, feeling he was very helpful to their causes.

Thomas Nast/Harper’s Weekly

Albert Boime, a well-respected art historian, stated that “As a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast wielded more influence than any other artist of the 19th century. He not only enthralled a vast audience with boldness and wit, but swayed it time and again to his personal position on the strength of his visual imagination.”

The Republican elephant

The first appearance of the Republican party as an elephant was in Thomas Nast’s cartoon “Third Term Panic”, released on this day in 1874. The comic was inspired by rumors of President Grant seeking a third term in office and was influenced by an old tale, “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin.”

Thomas Nast/Harper’s Magazine

In the famous comic, the Democratic Donkey panics other political parties as represented by various animals, including an ostrich, giraffe, owl, rabbit and the elephant.

Other important works by Nast

The Republican Elephant was perhaps one of Thomas Nast’s most important and recognizable works, but he was responsible for many other lasting symbols.

Thomas Nast/Harper’s Weekly

Among the legacies of Nast are the creation or popularization of the Democratic Donkey, the Tammany Hall Tiger, Columbia (an image of a woman in a flowery gown and tiara, wielding a sword, which represents America), John Confucius, updates to the appearance of Uncle Sam and the modern image of Santa Claus.