The elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party was conceived in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast. Two unique cartoons, one in 1860 the other in 1872, connected Republicans with the elephant but the concept was galvanized in a publication in Harper’s weekly in 1874.
The story goes that the Democrat Press began fear mongering the public with notions that a third term presidency of Ulysses S. Grant would be nothing short of a step toward tyranny (“Caesarism”). In a scathing cartoon titled “The Third Term Panic”, Nast portrays a donkey in lion’s clothing scaring all of the foolish animals in the forest including the Republican vote portrayed as a large elephant headed straight toward a pit of chaos. Although it is unknown why the cartoonist chose an elephant, a rational deduction would suggest a caricature of a large, powerful creature tending to act carelessly when frightened.
Other cartoonist picked up the symbol and the elephant ceased to represent simply the Republican vote but rather the party itself. The rest is history.