Higgins, James H. (James Henry), 1876-1927
James H. Higgins was the first Irish-Catholic governor of Rhode Island, serving from 1907 to 1909. Although orphaned at a young age, Higgins pursued a high school degree in Pawtucket and was accepted at Brown University in 1894 at a time when few Irish-Catholics matriculated at the Ivy League institution. Brown president Benjamin Andrews, a Protestant minister, paid Higgins’ tuition from his own pocket because of the young man’s talent and academic potential. The administrator’s faith in the “earnest young Celt” paid dividends when Higgins won the school’s highest award, the Hicks prize for debating. The future governor then enrolled at Georgetown University Law School with his friend and mentor, John J. Fitzgerald. Upon graduation the two formed a law partnership while pursuing political careers through the Democratic Party where they championed the causes of political and economic reform.
In 1901 Higgins won his first election, representing Pawtucket in the state General Assembly. His partner, John Fitzgerald, had already won the mayoralty of that city in 1899. When Fitzgerald stepped down as Pawtucket’s chief executive, Higgins succeeded him for four consecutive terms as Pawtucket’s youngest mayor (1902-1906). Then, Higgins ran for governor against the popular Republican, George H. Utter. After a bruising campaign, Higgins narrowly prevailed with the votes of some progressive Republicans. At age 30, the “boy governor” took the reins of Rhode Island for two consecutive, one-year terms beginning in 1907. Like most of the local Irish-Catholic Democrats of his era, he campaigned for “clean” government and municipal reform while espousing a pro-labor agenda. In 1912 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, ending his efforts to hold high public office. Thereafter, Higgins and Fitzgerald formed one of the most celebrated legal defense tandems in state history.
Rhode Island historian Charles Carroll has characterized Higgins, Fitzgerald, William S. Flynn, and their Irish-Catholic colleagues as the “Younger Democrats,” children or grandchildren of immigrants who scrapped the onus of earlier newcomers, saddled with a brogue in an inhospitable Yankee atmosphere and employed their education and political acumen to climb the ladder of success to the cheers of local Irish-Catholics. One of Higgins’s fraternity brothers at Brown University would later describe the “boy governor” in the Boston Globe newspaper as “The Plumed Knight, The Young Lochinvar, The Boy Demosthenes, and everything that they apply to earnest crusaders.” Higgins’ career set the stage for the eventual eclipse of the reactionary Republican political machine that ran Rhode Island and the emergence of a reformist Democratic takeover of state government during the Great Depression.
Higgins died in 1927 before the completion of the political transition he and Fitzgerald helped to set in motion. Today he joins his senior partner in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame
– Scott Molloy, Ph.D.