Major Henry Lee
Business Ventures: An Education of a Different Kind
the final year of the Civil War, Henry had at last found
an opportunity for employment. From January through July
of 1865, he worked as an agent for the Buckeye Oil
Company in Ohio, purchasing equipment and contracting
laborers to work in the oil fields. Living out of a
"shanty" boardinghouse was a "comfortless,
dirty and lonely" existence for Henry, though less
dreary after his wife Ida joined him during the latter
part of his stay there. However, the wells did not
produce the quantity of oil that the owners and investors
had anticipated. As a result, the company foundered and
the Higginsons returned home to Boston.
By autumn, Henry grew enthusiastic about his next
business venture: raising cotton on a plantation in
Georgia with friends Channing Clappa Harvard
classmate who served with him in the 1st Massachusetts
Cavalry, and Charles Morsea Harvard graduate and
comrade of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.
At first, business at the plantation ran smoothly,
allowing Henry the pleasure of returning home to Boston
for Christmas. After the holidays he brought Ida with him
to Cottonham, and together they put their heart and soul
into work with the laborers, educating them and preparing
them for life outside the plantation. But their hard
efforts and good intentions were not enough to overcome
the differences between the two cultures and lifestyles.
Concepts such as receiving wages for labor and dealing
with cash to purchase goods were difficult for these
former slaves to understand, as they never had ownership
of anything in this country. How could Henry and Ida
convince these workerswho had only known oppression
in the hands of white menthat they had their best
interests at heart?
Henry's woes with Cottonham increased in the following
year. The house servants and some laborers were caught
stealing from them. What's more, they discovered that
they really owned only 2500 of the 5000 acres they
purchased. Though frustrated by the project in general,
Higginson remained patient and compassionate towards his
workers. By late spring, however, Cottonham's failure
seemed inevitable. Clapp headed home after a wave of heat
arrived along with an infestation of rats, mice, fleas,
and malaria. When Ida developed a touch of malaria, Henry
decided it was time to give up the project entirely,
despite the fact that Ida believed they could make a
difference if they stayed another year. The Higginsons
left on May 21, 1867, with Morse now the sole overseer of
the plantation. Morse held out hope for the crops that
began to revive during summer, but by September when they
were consumed by caterpillars, he too realized that all
hopes for Cottonham were in vain.
After Henry and Ida returned from Georgia they moved into
a small apartment in Boston. Henry's unsuccessful
business ventures had left them more than $10,000 in
debt, and at age 33with responsibilities and
obligations to significant persons in his lifehe
could no longer afford to invest much time and money in
romantic but impractical dreams. Reluctantly, Henry
settled down and faced the reality of a future in the
family business of Lee, Higginson and Company.
Henry became a partner in the firm on January 1, 1868,
and a year later Frank joined them. The two brothers
added energy to the respected brokerage that had a
reputation for honesty and integrity regarding their
assessment of properties and relationships with clients.
At this point in timewith the rebuilding of the
nation after the warthe firm enjoyed a renewed
prosperity in the volume of stocks and bonds they
solddespite a few setbacks in the stock market.
On January 5, 1870 the Higginsons celebrated the birth of
their first child, daughter Cécile. In the spring of
1873, for the first time since he began his employment at
the firm, Higginson traveled to Europe on a non-business
trip to the Vienna Exposition. As one of the honorary
commissioners appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature,
he was reunited with friends and former Civil War
comrades Charles Adams (chairman of the commission) and
Greely Curtis (also an honorary commissioner). During the
several months he remained overseas, Henry revisited
Paris and London, and ventured on to Venice. As in his
former days abroad, he enjoyed the theatre, read books,
and wrote letters home. He also now pursued business
opportunities with British investors and bankers.
When Higginson returned to Boston in September, panic hit
the financial world as cash became scarce due to
over-trading, over-construction in America, and excessive
borrowing overseas. Businesses shut down over night and
many laborers lost their jobs. Though it would take years
for the economy to recover, Lee, Higginson and Co.
survived in its industry. However, in April 1874, at the
urging of his partners, George Higginson retired from the
firm at the age of 70. The collapse of the economy had
caused a great deal of stress, and his family and friends
did not want George burdened with the day-to-day
activities of the business.
In August 1875, the death of five-year-old Cécile
brought heartbreak to Henry and Ida. Despite the joy over
the birth of their son Alexander on April 2, 1876, Henry
secretly bore his grief over the loss of his daughter for
the rest of his life. But though he was dealt his share
of suffering, Henry continued with his noble ideals for
the betterment of the lives of his friendseven
those whom he would never meetand his gifts to
humanity would be enduring.
that Enriched the Lives of Many
March 1881, Henry unveiled to Boston his plan for an
orchestra that would perform "concerts of a lighter
kind of music." The product of Higginson's vision
was the Boston Symphony Orchestrathe first of his
great giftsworld renowned as one of the finest
orchestras to this day. In a letter to Miss Frances R.
Morse on September 18, 1881, he credited his friends as
the source of his inspiration for undertaking this
monumental achievement: "I had a noble set of
men-friends.... They led me in part to thoughts and hopes
which have resulted in this scheme. It seems to me to be
worth while, and to be a little gravestone to them if
anything, for they are all dead but onea great loss
to me and the world...."
A year later, Higginson began extending his philanthropic
efforts towards education. In May 1882, he supported
higher education for women by signing the Articles of the
Association that incorporated "Harvard Annex"
into "The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of
Women." Harvard Annexco-founded in 1879 by
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, Ida's stepmotherwas an
offshoot of Harvard College and provided instruction
exclusively for women. That year of his 48th birthday,
Henry also received an honorary degree from Harvard
Collegehis first and only degree from this
The end of the 1880s signified another painful event in
Henry's life with the death of his father on April 27,
1889. Replying to a letter of condolence from Dr. Vincent
Y. Bowditch, Henry wrote: "...The loss and the pain
is evident.... As I sat with him in the last days and
nights, the thought came to me again and again, that a
return to health would be very short-lived, and of
doubtful vigor.... He was a man without great talents,
but of a great gift for goodness, which he cultivated
Throughout the next decade, Higginson's gave generously
and frequently to educational institutions. On June 5,
1890, he presented Harvard College 31 acres of land he
had purchased. Five days later, he addressed the students
to explain the significance of his donation: "My
hope is that the ground will be used for the present as a
playground for the students.... The only other wish on my
part is that the ground shall be called "The Soldier's Field," and marked with a
stone bearing the names of some dear friends,alumni
of the University, and noble gentlemen,who gave
freely and eagerly all that they had or hoped for, to
their country and to their fellow men in the hour of
great needthe war of 1861 to 1865 in defence of the
Republic: James Savage, Jr., Charles Russell Lowell,
Edward Barry Dalton, Stephen George Perkins, James
Jackson Lowell, Robert Gould Shaw.... This is only a
wish, and not a condition; and, moreover, it is a
happiness to me to serve in any way the College, which
has done so much for us all."
Higginson established the Morristown School in New Jersey
for young men in 1891, modestly declining to be named as
the school's founder. This school merged with Miss
Beard's School for young womenalso founded in
1891to become Morristown-Beard School in 1971.
Today the private college preparatory school for grades 6
through 12 promotes "a lifelong love of learning, a
respect for honesty, integrity, self, and humanity."
In December 1893, Higginson was elected a Fellow of the
Corporation at Harvard University. The year 1894 marked
Henry's 60th birthday and new milestones in his life's
work. He now spent more time at Harvard due to his
position as a Fellow on the governing board and his son's
attendance of the university. Also that year, the Society
for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was chartered
Radcliffe College, and Henry became an Associate of the
governing board and served as the first treasurer.
Radcliffe College would later merge with Harvard
University in 1999. As in previous years, Higginson's
arduous work with the orchestra and at the firm
continued, carrying on throughout the decade.
In 1899, Higginson contributed $150,000 for the
construction of the Harvard Union, a "house of
fellowship" for all students of Harvard and
Radcliffe, where they could dine, study, meet, and listen
to lectures. In an address delivered at the Sanders
Theatre on campus, November 13, 1899, Henry stated the
purpose for the proposed building: "A Harvard
student needs and has the right to every advantage which
the government of the University can give. Neither books,
nor lectures, nor games can replace the benefits arising
from free intercourse with all his companionsthe
education of friendship.... Therefore, we will build a
great house on college grounds.... We will call it the
Harvard Union.... In this House should centre all the
college news, of work, athletics, sport, of public
affairs; and there, we hope, may be found a corner and a
chair and a bit of supper for the old and homeless alumni
from other cities...."
Higginson suggested that the building could also
represent a memorial to the 11 Harvard men who died in
the Spanish-American War of 1898, but requested that the
building "in no place bear any name except that of
benefactor John Harvard," since he believed
the Union was "the result of Harvard teamwork, of
mutual reliance." Today, the redesigned building
comprises the main part of the Barker Center, dedicated
The new century found Higginson gathering with Civil War
veterans for Officers' Club meetingsas he had done
so for the past 20 yearsand meeting with the Loyal
Legion. He also presided over the Tavern Club as its
president. During the early 1900s, Henry benefacted a
number of schools and colleges: Middlesex Schoolan
independent college preparatory boarding school for boys
and girls in grades 9-12; the University of Virginia; and
Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics (the
third major division of Washington and Lee University).
He also raised funds for a model college at Santiago,
Cuba, after the Spanish-American War had ended. Henry's
acts of generosity inspired other men of his generation
and social standing, and for his exemplary deeds he
received an honorary degree of LL.D from Yale in 1901. In
that year he also accepted an invitation to become a
trustee of the Carnegie Institution.
On October 15, 1901, Higginson attended the formal
dedication of the Harvard Union. As the final speaker,
Higginson uttered these memorable words: "...Our new
house is built in the belief that here also will dwell
this same spirit of democracy side by side with the
spirit of true comradeship, friendship; but to-day this
house is a mere shell, a body into which you, Harvard
students, and you alone can breathe life, and then, by a
constant and generous use of it, educate yourselves and
each other.... Looking back in life I can see no earthly
good which has come to me, so great, so sweet, so
uplifting, so consoling, as the friendship of the men and
the women whom I have known well and lovedfriends
who have been equally ready to give and to receive kind
offices and timely counsel.... In these halls may, you,
young men, see visions and dream dreams, and may you keep
steadily burning the fire of high ideals, enthusiasm, and
hope, otherwise you cannot share in the great work and
glory of our new century. Already this century is
bringing to you younger men questions and decisions to
the full as interesting and as vital as the last century
to us. Every honor is open to you, and every victory, if
only you will dare, will strive strongly, and will
Idealism and a Dedication to His Ideals
||In the years that
followed, Higginson continued work on the many
projects and areas of his interest. As always, he
enjoyed his work with the new junior partners at
the firm and their dedication to the spirit of
the company's ideals. At Radcliffe, he served his
last year as treasurer in 1905, and his final
year as an associate in 1906. During the Panic of
1907 the stock market plummeted, and Lee,
Higginson and Co. once again was hit hard by the
economic woes of the nation. In addition to
resolving crises at the firm, Henry worked with
his associates at Harvard in planning the
establishment of a business school, and the
establishment of the Medical School thereafter.
Around this time, Higginson's words revealed much
of his philosophies and wisdom on the material
and non-material aspects of life. In 1911, he
wrote to his friend, broker Charles A. Coffin:
of Higginson in 1905 by Notham, care of Bliss
Perry's book. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.
"...I have certain views
about corporate managements, which do not entirely agree
with those of other people. I do think that the
corporations have been rather too eager, just as certain
rich men have. It is perfectly natural in the struggle to
succeed, and still more in the effort not to fail.... I
do not believe that, because a man owns property, it
belongs to him to do with as he pleases. The property
belongs to the community, and he has charge of it, and
can dispose of or use it, if it is well done and not with
sole regard to himself or to his stockholders. If you
will think a little while, perhaps you will agree that my
views are not radical, or rather revolutionary at all; it
is merely injecting morals and religion into daily
lifeand they belong there, and form a part of our
conduct, and must guide us...."
In a letter to Bishop Brent, written on February 12,
1912, Higginson commented on his interpretation of
"practical idealism": "Is it not the
follower of 'inspirational idealism,' the other hand, the
other half? Consider slavery.... [Abraham] Lincoln and
the quiet men of the countryside and of the factories and
of the counting-room showed their 'practical idealism' by
wrestling against it at thy cost, and paid the bill. Is
not the same true in many ways? ...Our nation needs
education and civilization, thought of others,as to
their condition, hopes, aims, refreshment, amusement,
religion,active and unceasing thought of and work
for others. Plenty of people think so and seek all these
things. Is not this 'practical idealism'? ...In it lies
the only solution of life, the only means of allaying the
fever of the times; and my mates of sixty years ago who
are lying in Virginia thought so sixty years ago, and
their 'relic' thinks so to-day. We cannot smash; God does
not wish it, for it upsets his plan for the world, so it
seems to me, and, therefore, we must go on in better
fashion.... All we men of the world can do is to indulge
in practical idealism, and try to make it answer, and
remember that it is according to the truth, which must
prevail; otherwise, life is a failurealmost a
A little more than two years later, Henry disclosed more
of his personal philosophies in a letter to American
historian James Ford Rhodes: "...We need more true
democracy, true fellowship between man and man and more
wish to serve our fellows, for on it depends religion,
morality, the usefulness and happiness of lifeGod's
blessing, else why are we here? It was our youthful
doctrine and it wears well. Why feel a faith and not try
to live according to it? If my nearest and dearest
playmates had lived, they would have tried to help their
fellows, and as they had gone before us, the greater the
need for me to tryand the many tasks are still
before usand still very incomplete...."
Culmination of a Life's Work
the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Higginson's concerns
about Lee, Higginson and Co. and the Boston Symphony
Orchestra escalated. Many friends and members of the
orchestra were of various European nationalities, and
their fate in the United States and in their homelands
abroad was uncertain. As the war progressed, Higginson's
thoughts grew sober. He was concerned about the
"waste of the armies of all those nations" and
the "burden that comes on the poor people."
Though Higginson tried to remain calm in the face of the
storm, he became a focal point of controversy as the war
reached its climax. Henry's nationalism was questioned by
a number of the orchestra's faithful subscribers because
the conductor, Dr. Muck, was a German-born citizen and
supported his homeland. In March 1918, Dr. Muck was
arrested for being an "alien enemy" and was
later replaced by another conductor. Disappointed by the
public outcry against Dr. Muck and other members of his
orchestra, Higginson resigned. In his reminiscences,
Henry wrote: "At the end of the season, at the last
concert of Saturday evening, May 4, 1918, I went on to
the stage, stated the original purposes of the Orchestra,
and said that I was done with the work, added a few words
to the men of the Orchestra, and came away; and that was
the finish of my connection with that enterprise. Various
friends had already been moving and had resolved to carry
on the Orchestra, and I stated that fact at the last
As summer approached, Higginson was urged by his
physicians to get some rest. He was now approaching his
84th birthday when his niece, Mrs. George R. Agassiz,
suggested in July that he write his reminiscences. To
this request, Henry replied: "...I have made so many
mistakes, and done so many foolish things, and thrown
away so many good chances that I cannot take any
particular joy in my life. As to what has been done, that
was all in the day's work. I have received more credit in
my lifetime than I ever deserved. Did I ever tell you
that, if I had not been married, I proposed staying in
the army, and, by this time, would have been a retired
old veteran, growling at everything. I enjoyed my army
life, and, on the whole, did it better than anything
elsethat is, I was a good regimental officer, but
could not have gone above the command of a thousand men.
I've not been a good business man, but have come through
somehow or other. Yes, I can remember many things within
my European life which were interesting to me, and some
of them are so still, but they would do nobody any good,
and I think they would entertain nobody...."
Henry set to work writing his reminiscences and was
feeling better now that his obligations in maintaining
the details of the Orchestra had ceased. He was pleased
by the hundreds of letters he received at his bedside,
expressing appreciation of him and his work.
A week before Henry's 84th birthday, Armistice Day
arrived, bringing peace to the world at last. Early in
1919 Henry was hospitalized, but felt better by the end
of spring. That summer, he addressed the school of
bond-salesmen organized by Lee, Higginson and Co. on the
philosophy of the firm: "...The house has always
tried to do its work well and to have and keep a high
character, and I think it has succeeded in those points.
Character is the foundation-stone of such a business, and
once lost, is not easily regained.... Now, for
yourselves: Do not lose a day; use your time well,
remembering that that day never comes again; know your
business, and tell the story just as it is; find out the
truth about the bonds and shares; if a bond is pretty
good, say so; if it is first-class, say that; if it is
attractive from a speculator's point of view, say that.
Put the 'cards on the table' every time, and do not bore
buyers. If you are roughly treated, never mind. Good men
are not infrequently out of temper or very busy, and do
not care to see you. Remember this about truth: you must
know your subject in order to speak truly; and although
making a mistake is not the same thing as deceiving,
still you are responsible for the facts, and, therefore,
for the truth. Do not waste your time. Keep your temper.
Play the game decently, and be faithful."
In October, Henry was hospitalized again but returned to
work in early November. A week later on November 14 he
underwent surgery and never regained consciousness. On
the day before what would have been Henry's 85th
birthday, services were held for him at Appleton Chapel.
From there he was borne to Mount Auburn and laid to rest.
Following his death, many friends and colleagues
remembered Henry with the kindest thoughts and words. He
would have been touched to have read and heard them. For
his many contributions to the world, Henry Lee Higginson
remains a great inspiration to all, and one of the
greatest friends of humankind.
Among Higginson's final words were those written to a
friend just before his 85th birthday: "I've had only
too many kind words of praise for doing my duty, and only
my duty, as my eyes and those of dear, dead friends saw
it. The simple talethat he tried to fill up gaps
and sought to bring sunshine into the lives of his fellow
men and women, that he usually kept his word, given and
implied, and that he worshipped his country and had the
very best and most far-seeing of friendsis the
biography would not be posted here if it were not for
Brian Pohanka who introduced me to Henry Lee Higginson. I
am grateful for Brian's encouragement, assistance and
inspiration throughout this project, and for his
significant contributions to this body of
workincluding images, quotations, comments, and
review. Brian's tireless efforts in keeping alive the
memory of Civil War heroes such as Henry Lee Higginson
have helped to increase public awareness of the countless
sacrifices and selfless deeds of many honorable soldiers
and citizens. These heroes are a part of our culture and
our heritage; may they not be forgotten.
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