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The Life Story of

Major Henry Lee Higginson

Part III: Life in the Business World and among Friends

Page 3

"What I gave, I have;
What I spent, I had;
What I kept, I lost."

- Anonymous

(a favorite quotation of Henry's)


Gifts in Education that Enriched the Lives of Many

In 1891, Higginson established the Morristown School in New Jersey for young men, modestly declining to be named as the school's founder. This school merged with Miss Beard's School for young women—also founded in 1891—to 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."

Though a number of Henry's donations to schools were made to schools, he also donated works of art to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1893 he gave the Museum a copy of the painting "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child" by Rogier van der Weyden. But despite his consistently generous and numerous contributions, Higginson was not immune to the woes of the financial world. During that year, the Panic of 1893 struck the nation, signifying the beginning of a depression that would last seven years. As a result, the firm endured hard times. However, the year ended on a bright note when Higginson received news in December that he had been elected a Fellow of the Corporation at Harvard University. Though Henry was deeply appreciative of this honor, he considered himself "a wretched failure in his own eyes." But his doubts had been misplaced, for Harvard president Charles W. Eliot recognized that Higginson was "successful in his own calling, commanding the confidence of all" who knew him. Eliot reassured Henry that he was "the kind of man needed in the governing board of a university: a highly educated, public-spirited, business or professional man who takes a strong interest in educational and social problems, and believes in the higher education as the source of enlightenment and progress for all stages of education, and for all the industrial and social interests of the community."

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 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 companions—the education of friendship. The proverb says, "We have as many uses for friendship as for fire and water."

Therefore, we will build a great house on college grounds.... We will call it the Harvard Union.... It shall have large, simple, comfortable rooms; ample space or reading, study, games, conversation; and a great hall, where all may meet and hold the freest talk in public. 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 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 in 1997.

Dreams for the New Century

On July 5, 1900, Henry and Ida became grandparents with the birth of Alex and his wife Rosamond's son, named Henry Lee Higginson. That autumn the Boston Symphony Orchestra began performing in the newly-built Symphony Hall, the first of its kind to be constructed with consideration of acoustics. The concert hall is regarded as one of the finest in the world today.

The new century found Higginson gathering with Civil War veterans for Officers' Club meetings—as he had done so for the past 20 years—and 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 School—an 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.

Sargent's portrait of Higginson   On October 15, 1901, following his return from Europe, Higginson attended the formal dedication of the Harvard Union. As the final speaker, Higginson spoke 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 loved—friends who have been equally ready to give and to receive kind offices and timely counsel....

Black and white photo of John Singer Sargent's 1903 painting of Higginson from Bliss Perry's book. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

...We older men would offer to you a garden in which such saplings will grow until they become the oaks to whose shade you may always return for cheer and for rest in your victories and your troubles. Be sure that you will have both, for the one you will win and the other you must surely meet; and when they come, nothing will steady and strengthen you like real friends, who will speak the frank words of truth tempered by affection—friends who will help you and never count the cost....

One point pray note. The house will fail of its full purpose unless there is always a warm corner for that body of men who devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and to your instruction—the whole staff of Harvard University, from our distinguished and honored President, the professors, librarians, and instructors, to the youngest proctor. And if you see an older graduate enter the hall, go and sit beside him, tell him the college news, and make him a welcome guest, for his is the house of friendship.... Old men are more shy of boys than boys of old men. I have been one and am the other—and ought to know....

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 persist....

Practical Idealism and a Dedication to His Ideals

Higginson continued work on the many projects and areas of his interest. He constructed the building for the Thoreau Institute, a research and educational facility. 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. That year, Henry was honored by a request from friends of the Orchestra for his portrait bust to be made and displayed at Symphony Hall. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (sculptor of the Shaw Memorial) was commissioned to produce this portrait in bronze, but after the artist died in the following year, the work was completed by Bela Pratt in 1911.

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:

...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 life—and they belong there, and form a part of our conduct, and must guide us....

In an address to college students, he remarked:

...Pray bear in mind that any large work which you build up, be it a factory or a railroad or anything else, is not yours absolutely. It has been done for the world and done with the help of the world, which has after all aided you and given you your education. No matter how large a work you have done, it belongs to the world in a measure; and the more you can draw your helpers to your side, the more you can make them feel that it is "our" mill or railroad, and not "mine" alone, the stronger you will stand....

In a letter to Bishop Brent, written on February 12, 1912, Higginson commented on his interpretation of "practical idealism":

...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. Is this childish reasoning? Never mind—we always feel better when we are trying, hoping, wrestling and using practical idealism, don't we?

We old soldiers are sure that we might well have won at Antietam, and taken Lee's Army, body and breeches, and again at Chancellorsville, and again at Gettysburg; but we did not, and two of us old files yesterday were saying to each other that our only explanation was that God thought we had not paid the full price for our sin, and so was not willing to let us succeed. I believe it fully....

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 failure—almost a farce.

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 life—God'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 try—and the many tasks are still before us—and still very incomplete....


Part III of Henry's story continues:

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