Most discussions of the origin of the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party credit Thomas Nast and his Harper’s Weekly cartoon of November 7, 1874, “The Third Term Panic.” Political commentator William Safire does so in his New Language of Politics (1972). However, Safire and others following his lead also mention an alleged appearance of an elephant in the pro-Lincoln campaign newspaper of 1860, The Rail Splitter. Although an image of a stampeding elephant was published in the Chicago version of that partisan periodical, it was part of an advertisement for a Chicago shoe store, Willet & Co. The elephant in the ad wears boots and carries a banner in its trunk labeled “Good Boots and Shoes.” Located on the back page of each issue, none of the Willet advertisements make any direct or indirect reference to the Republican Party in particular or politics in general. The image does not appear in the Cincinnati edition of The Rail Splitter (1860).
During the 1864 presidential election, an image of an elephant was published in the pro-Lincoln campaign newspaper, Father Abraham. The same boot-wearing, banner-carrying pachyderm used in the 1860 Willet advertisements is shown in the September 27, 1864 issue of Father Abraham celebrating Union military victories, instead of selling shoes. Since “seeing the elephant” was slang among Civil War soldiers for engaging in combat, the symbol was a natural choice for honoring successful military campaigns.
In the featured illustration from the October 18, 1864 issue of Father Abraham, the same emblem (minus the boots) bears a banner proclaiming, “The Elephant is Coming.” The animal is surrounded by text celebrating Republican victories in state elections, which were seen as precursors of the presidential contest a few weeks later in early November. This first appearance of the Republican Elephant had transitioned smoothly and swiftly from the language and imagery of war to that of American politics. As mentioned above, the symbol indirectly derived from the business world of product marketing.
In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon depicting the breakaway Liberal Republicans as a sham elephant. However, in neither 1864 nor 1872 did the symbolic caricature have a lasting impact on political cartoonists or the public. It was not until the mid-1870s that Thomas Nast’s use of the elephant to represent the Republican Party captured the attention of others. By the 1880 presidential election, cartoonists for other publications had incorporated the elephant symbol into their own work, and by March 1884 Nast could refer to the image he had made famous as “The Sacred Elephant” of the Republican Party.