Why is the elephant GOP’s symbol?

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Political cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with giving the Republican Party its elephant mascot, which he used to symbolize his concerns about the party’s decline. Prior to the elephant, the eagle was the party’s symbol. Today, the elephant is recognized as a symbol of strength and wisdom associated with Republican platforms.

Many credit the first use of the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party in the United States to political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). He can certainly be credited with giving both the Democratic and Republican parties their mascots and awarding the donkey to the Democratic Party. Nast’s depiction of the Democratic Party’s unofficial mascot was never meant to be flattering, yet Democrats nevertheless accepted what was initially an insult and made it their own.

As a symbol of the Republican party, the elephant represented Nast’s political feelings towards his own party, and also some of his despair that some of the qualities associated with that party seemed to be vanishing. Nast was also not the first to use this symbol. His first drawing of the elephant was in 1874, but some of Lincoln’s campaign materials also had an image of an elephant, and another cartoon depicting the party as an elephant was commonly seen in 1872.

Nast’s initial drawing occurred in a cartoon titled “The Third Panic,” and depicts the elephant jumping into a pit across broken planks with the words inflation, reform, and repudiation written across them. Nast’s drawing represents his vision of the party’s decline, especially in light of the financial panic at the time. According to Nast, Republicans were falling victim to the Democrats’ scare tactics and abandoning their party’s platform.

Prior to Nast’s use of the elephant, the eagle had been a common symbol of the Republican party, but due in part to Nast’s skill as a cartoonist, the elephant replaced the eagle in short order, and the Republican party officially adopted the large animal as its symbol. Although Nast’s portrayal was not as flattering and underlined his concerns about a changing party, the elephant was still a large animal and thought to have both dignity and strength. These qualities were considered admirable.

Today’s most common representation of the elephant incorporates the colors and stars of the American flag. This Republican Party symbol is not drawn as realistically as its Democratic donkey counterpart. Yet it is still quite recognizable as the political pachyderm symbolizing strength, wisdom, long memory and the like.

It’s not a stretch to associate the elephant with many Republican platforms, even if Nast’s political fears can be said to have materialized. In a sense, especially entering the Great Depression and, subsequently, the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, parties changed dynamically. There is almost a total reversal of platforms in modern parties, though not an exchange of symbols.

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