November 7th, 1874 – How the Republican Party got its Elephant

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs, and ex-Free Soilers, the Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Southern Democratic Party and the briefly popular Know Nothing Party. The main cause was opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise by which slavery was kept out of Kansas. The Northern Republicans saw the expansion of slavery as a great evil. The first public meeting where the name “Republican” was suggested for a new anti-slavery party was held on March 20th, 1854 in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin.  The name was partly chosen to pay homage to Thomas Jefferson‘s Republican Party.

The first official party convention was held on July 6th, 1854, in Jackson, Michigan. By 1858, the Republicans dominated nearly all Northern states. The Republican Party first came to power in 1860 with the election of Lincoln to the Presidency and Republicans in control of Congress and again, the Northern states. It oversaw the saving of the union, the end of slavery, and the provision of equal rights to all men in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861–1877.

The symbol of an elephant that came to represent the Republican Party originally appeared on November 7th, 1874 as a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly drawn by satirist Thomas Nast.

Nast Elephant

Nast’s cartoons were instrumental in swaying public opinion on political corruption and social injustice, but perhaps his crowning achievement pertained to the election of the 18th President of the United States. Harper’s Weekly, and Nast, played an important role in the election of the Republican Party’s Ulysses Grant in 1868 and 1872; in the latter campaign, Nast’s ridicule of Horace Greeley‘s candidacy was especially merciless. After Grant’s victory in 1872, Mark Twain wrote the artist a letter saying: “Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant—I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress.” Nast became a close friend of President Grant and the two families shared regular dinners until Grant’s death in 1885.


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