President Grant’s Elephant Inkwell – Republican Party Symbol
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President Ulysses S. Grant frequently entertained Thomas Nast (1840-1902) at the White House, where the influential cartoonist undoubtedly saw this elephant inkwell prominently displayed on the president’s desk. The elephant was first used as a symbol of the Republican Party in a Nast cartoon published in the November 7, 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly. [ULYSSES S. GRANT].
Inkwell, of European origin, in form of black-painted standing elephant with gilt-metal blanket which lifts to reveal a brass and glass inkpot. Stood on Grant’s desk in the White House.
Nast—who, like most German immigrants, was fervently devoted to the Union, Emancipation, and the Republican Party—did not actually meet his hero until after the Civil War. A reporter had asked the General, “Who is the foremost figure in civil life developed in the war?” To which Grant unflinchingly replied, “I think Thomas Nast. He did as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.” Nast, thrilled by this tribute, sought out Grant at his Fifth Avenue hotel. The two men became fast friends, and Nast subsequently did everything to promote and defend Grant’s political career in his cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. When Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868, he credited his victory to two factors: “The sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”
Nast’s cartoon, “The Third Term Panic,” appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874, amid rumors that Grant would seek a third term and cries of “Caesarism” from the Democratic press. Inspired in part by a false story reporting a mass escape of animals from New York’s Central Park Zoo, Nast’s cartoon depicts the Aesopian fable “An ass having put on the lion’s skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings.” The ass or donkey was based on a preexisting symbol for the Democratic Party and the lion’s skin represents the phony charge of “Caesarism.” One of the frightened animals is an elephant labeled “The Republican Vote,” about to blunder into the tar pit of “Southern Claims Chaos.” The elephant has a reputation for being an animal easily panicked. Quite possibly, Nast got his specific idea for using an elephant to represent the Republicans from the decorative inkwell that sat on Grant’s desk. Whatever the actual origin, Nast used the elephant again in a second cartoon that same month, thereby giving it wide currency as the embodiment of the Grand Old Party.
After President Grant’s death, his youngest son Jesse inherited the elephant inkwell along with many other of his personal possessions. They were subsequently passed on to his great-grandson Ulysses V, where they remained until being sold by the family at Sotheby’s in January 2001.
Tusks had been lost, and are replaced.