The 70-year-old pledged to lead an energetic campaign after comfortably beating rivals Fergus Finlay and Kathleen O’Meara at a selection convention in Dublin.
The former minister and Galway TD polled 37 votes compared to 18 for Mr Finlay and seven for Ms O’Meara.
The total 62 votes had been cast by the party’s 52 TDs, senators and MEPS as well as members of Labour’s executive council.
During his nomination speech at the Mansion House, Mr Higgins pointed to his record in advocating fair trade, human rights and the arts at home and abroad. He said, if elected president, he would set out a project under his term.
“What I am aiming for is an inclusive citizenship in a creative society appropriate for a republic.
“The time has come to challenge the extreme radical individualism of the recent past and replace it with a radical inclusive citizenship based on the equality of human dignity, respect and intergenerational solidarity.”
Mr Higgins said he had worked at all levels of politics, had advocated same-sex unions and as a former arts minister had achieved results.
He also pledged, if successful, to convene public seminars on issues such as ethics, climate change and poverty reduction.
Former party advisor and current chief executive of charity Barnardos, Mr Finlay, spoke about his extensive role in the peace process under former Tanaiste Dick Spring.
He outlined his work in advocating services for the disabled and his role in organising the 2003 Special Olympics in Ireland.
Mr Finlay admitted he had sometimes been dismissed as a spindoctor.
Mr Finlay called on Labour to unite behind their nominee over the next 125 days before polling day.
In an emotional speech, former senator Kathleen O’Meara spoke of her decision to run for the party nomination last November when it emerged that Ireland needed a financial bailout.
“My heart sank. Because I thought we had built something. I thought we had built a country that worked.”
In a tearful explanation, she said she had thought of her late father who had lived through Ireland’s Civil War and of her son, a qualified engineer, who recently emigrated to Australia for work.
Party leader Eamon Gilmore pledged Mr Higgins would be allowed run an autonomous campaign.
“This is not going to be a campaign like a general election between political parties; it is going to be a contest between candidates...it is essentially going to be about the values that the country should have and the reflection on those.”