In 1882, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University and served as the first president of the new Harvard Club of Boston during a period when he helped raise a lot of money to send needy students to Harvard. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. from Yale University in 1901. He served as president of the Boston Music Hall and as a trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1892-1919. He was also the president of the Tavern Club from more than 20 years, a "literary social club."
On June 5, 1890, Higginson presented Harvard College a gift of 31 acres (130,000 m2) of land, which he called Soldiers Field, given in honor of his friends who died in the Civil War: James Savage, Jr., Charles Russell Lowell, Edward Barry Dalton, Stephen George Perkins, James Jackson Lowell, and Robert Gould Shaw. On June 10 of that year, at the dedication of Soldiers Field, he said:
- One of these friends, Charles Lowell, dead, and yet alive to me as you are, wrote me just before his last battle:-- "Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you'll find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. Don't seek office; but don't 'disremember' that the useful citizen holds his time, his trouble, his money, and his life always ready at the hint of his country. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero; but we are not going to have a country very long unless such heroism is developed. There! what a stale sermon I'm preaching! But, being a soldier, it does seem to me that I should like nothing so well as being a useful citizen." This was his last charge to me, and in a month he was in his grave. I have tried to live up to it, and I ask you to take his words to heart and to be moved and guided by them.
His devotion to education was both enthusiastic and patrician. Once, when advising a cousin to make a large contribution to Harvard he wrote:
- How else are we to save our country if not by education in all ways and on all sides? What can we do so useful to the human race in every aspect? It is wasting your time to read such platitudes.
- Democracy has got fast hold of the world and will rule. Let us see that she does it more wisely and more humanly than the kings and nobles have done! Our chance is now–before the country is full and the struggle for bread becomes intense and bitter.
- Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from mobs!
Sometime before 1913, he lent his name as an officer to the efforts of the Immigration Restriction League, which campaigned on behalf of literacy tests to limit immigration. Their avoidance of more straightforward racial categories and quotas only masked their fundamental bias against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Other gifts to Harvard included $150,000 contributed in 1899 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. A few years later, he raised $10,000 to defray the costs of tuition and living expenses for students from China, a program somewhat at odds with America's exclusion of Chinese immigrants at the time.
Higginson was very active in promoting quality education to citizens from all walks of life. In 1891, Higginson established the Morristown School for young men, now the Morristown-Beard School, declining to be named as the school's founder. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Middlesex School, and the school's Higginson House dormitory is named for him.
He was generally impatient with politicians. He objected to Theodore Roosevelt's attacks on big business. He wrote him: "Cease all harsh words about corporations and capitalists." He did not hesitate to provide President Wilson with unsolicited advice on his conduct of World War I.
On January 25, 1915, Higginson was a participant in the first transcontinental telephone call along with Thomas Watson, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Vail and Woodrow Wilson. The telephone Higginson used is now located at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity
In 1916, he accepted election to honorary membership in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity.
He died in 1919 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts following funeral services that were later described as "gala obsequies." One cousin's tribute described him: "He always seemed to me like the old knight of the castle–a part he played in some theatricals–giving sympathetic, spirited advice and inspiration of high example to the apprentice squires."
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“Minds do not act together in public; they simply stick together; and when their private activities are resumed, they fly apart again.”
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