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The Third-Term Controversy That Gave the Republican Party Its Symbol

The elephant and the donkey as symbols for America’s biggest political parties date back to the 1800s and this controversy

This cartoon was published on November 7, 1874, in 'Harper's Weekly.' (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

No president had ever served a third term before–and as it turned out, Ulysses S. Grant wasn't about to either.

Although factions within the Republican party supported the idea of Grant seeking an unprecedented third term, debate over this potential move came to nothing when Grant himself vetoed the idea. But that debate did leave the Republican party with a lasting symbol–the elephant.

One hundred and forty-three years ago, the elephant gained its first association with the Republican party. It appeared in a Thomas Nast editorial cartoon in Harper’s Weekly, addressing Grant’s apparent campaigning for a third term in the midst of the midterm elections. In that cartoon, an elephant panics and tumbles into a hidden pit as a donkey in a lion skin frightens it as well as other animals, including a unicorn labeled “N.Y. Times.”  

Although the Democratic party is more traditionally associated with the donkey, in this case, however, the donkey (or “jackass,” if you prefer) represents the New York Herald, which had grimly foreshadowed the idea of Grant campaigning for a third term, against all political convention. The New York Times writes:

Here, the New York Herald appears as an ass in a lion’s skin, whose ferocious presence frightens the “foolish animals” of the press, including The New York Times (unicorn), the New York Tribune (giraffe), and the New York World (owl).  A skittish fox, representing the Democratic Party, has edged onto a reform plank near a gaping pit, by which the trumpeting elephant, symbolizing the Republican vote, lumbers. Since this issue of Harper’s Weekly went to press shortly before the congressional elections of November 3, 1874, the artist was uncertain which party would tumble into the pit, but early results boded ill for the Republicans.  

Following the midterm elections, “the Democrats did win control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War,” writes the Times. In Nast’s followup cartoon, the Republican elephant tumbled into the pit while the fox made it out.

As Jimmy Stamp writes for Smithsonian.com, Nast was central to popularizing the associations with the two parties and their respective animals. “It was a time when political cartoons weren’t just relegated to a sidebar in the editorial page, but really had the power to change minds and sway undecided voters by distilling complex ideas into more compressible representations,” Stamp writes. “Cartoons had power.”

Nast was also a loyal Republican, which is perhaps why the Democrats got saddled with a jackass as a popular symbol (the party has never officially adopted it), while the Republicans got the large and relatively noble elephant, which the party did officially adopt as a symbol.

“The rationale behind the choice of the elephant is unclear, but Nast may have chosen it as the embodiment of a large and powerful creature, though one that tends to be dangerously careless when frightened,” Stamp writes. ”Alternately, the political pachyderm may have been inspired by the now little-used phrase “seeing the elephant,” a reference to war and a possible reminder of the Union victory.”

The cartoon–and the symbol–remain iconic. Ulysses S. Grant didn’t run for a third term, although he technically could have. There was no hard and fast limit on the number of terms a President could serve until the Twenty-Second Amendment was passed in 1951, following FDR’s unprecedented four terms. However, “in 1875, Grant wrote a public letter formally renouncing any interest in a third term and played virtually no role in the election of 1876 until that December, when the electoral votes arrived in Washington, D.C.,” writes historian Joan Waugh.

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