April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
A good party is better than the best man that ever lived.” So said “Czar’ Thomas B. Reed, the formidable late-nineteenth-century Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was talking about his own Republican party, of course, and “Elephant Joe” Josephs, the gloriously partisan artist whose proud self-portraits appear here, would have agreed enthusiastically. For no more impassioned Republican ever drew breath than this one-man GOP whirlwind from Buffalo, New York. Most of the time, Josephs was simply the city’s best-known sign painter, celebrated only for his flamboyantly decorated shop (see A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1975), and for his habit of handing out miniature elephants as a personal trademark to potential customers. But every four years between 1856 and 1880, at presidential election time, Josephs became a man obsessed.
From street parading to stump oratory, Joe Josephs could do it all. Parades may have been his first love: he organized, drilled, and led uniformed marching units—the Lincoln Rail Splitters, the Grant Tanners, the Garfield Wood-Choppers; he painted the banners and transparencies they bore and devised elaborate floats for them to drag along with them. (The 1860 version featured muscular Lincoln enthusiasts on a bunting-draped wagon bed splitting real rails.) Josephs ran rallies and Republican galas, too: he hired the hall; rehearsed the bands; festooned the walls with thirty-foot banners, portraits of party heroes, and brutal caricatures of the opposition. He could make a speech when the occasion called for it, and he also liked to sing, bellowing words of his own composition in “his own peculiar fashion” to the tune of Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys and other Republican anthems. Democrats foolhardy enough to try to shout him down were squelched with lyrics improvised on the spot. All in all, wrote one observer, “He created a fund of amusement with his unique songs and capital caricatures.”
He was not universally admired, of course. The Democratic Buffalo Courier once denounced him as “the well-known painter and worst caricaturist that ever ruined a canvas.” But most people seemed to like him, and when he died in 1893, the whole city felt the loss. “He was a red hot Republican,” wrote the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser , “but a good fellow notwithstanding.”