Usher, James (c.1720–1772), philosopher and schoolmaster, was born in Co. Dublin, son of a gentleman farmer; nothing else is known of his parents. He was probably a descendant of James (qv) and Henry Ussher (qv), archbishops of Armagh, and may have removed the additional ‘s’ from his surname when he converted to Roman catholicism c.1750. His father appears to have died when he was a child. After receiving a classical education and possibly attending TCD, he took over the family farm on the Meath–Kildare border. He sold this estate c.1748 and invested the capital in a linen business in Dublin. This enterprise failed during difficult economic conditions in the 1750s. While a draper he made a number of visits to Bristol and met his lifelong friend John Walker, actor and philologist. The trigger for his conversion to Roman catholicism is unclear but his wife, Jane Fitzsimons, was a catholic and may have been influenced by the writings of the Irish Jesuit priest Henry Fitzsimon (qv). Jane died sometime in the 1750s and this induced Usher to send his three sons to be educated at the Lombard College, Paris. His only daughter was sent to a convent school, where she died. It seems likely that Usher himself became a Jesuit priest c.1760. Writing under the pen-name ‘Free Thinker’ in the Public ledger in 1766, he says that there are protestants ‘who with sagacity discovered I am a priest, and, with equal honesty, passed their words to the public that I am one’ (A free examination (1808 ed.), 53).
From c.1760 he resided mainly in London in very straitened circumstances. One early biographer said that ‘his whole life was little better than a scramble for the support of the day that was passing over him’ (European Magazine, xxix (1796), 151). In 1767 he received some good fortune in the form of a £300 bequest left by his friend and fellow writer Charles Molloy (qv). With this capital he set up a school, probably for young catholic gentlemen, with his friend John Walker at Kensington Gravel Pits, London. After a short while Walker left the school and Usher became the sole tutor until his death. It was during his time as a schoolmaster that Usher began to publish his thoughts on philosophy and religion. In his first known work, A new system of philosophy founded on the universal operations of nature (1764), he opposes many of Locke's theories on empiricism and self-interest. In 1766 Usher published a number of letters in the Public Ledger, using the name ‘Free Thinker’, on what he considered to be the uncivilised and ultimately futile methods employed to persecute catholics in England and Ireland. This created a lively response from readers and the printer decided not to publish any more of his letters. Usher then published his letters (along with counter-arguments to the barrage of criticism that he received) in a volume entitled A free examination of the common methods employed to prevent the growth of popery (1766). He argued that the state of popery was already ‘very contemptible and low’ in England, apart from the ‘thousands of Irish papists in London who flock there on different views and occasions’ (Free examination, 3) and that there was no need for the ‘absurd’ laws of oppression. He felt that the survival of popery had less to do with inactive magistrates and more with the mysterious nature of religion. Persecution, he argued, actually increased the sincerity of the resistance.
His rejection of purely utilitarian factors in explaining human motivation can also be seen in his Clio: or A discourse on taste addressed to a young lady (1767). Here he explores the idea that taste in music and art is formed by a number of universal and mysterious factors and not just by human conditioning from childhood. He speaks of an ‘inward light of universal beauty’ and believed that what was ‘graceful, agreeable and sublime in Greece and Rome are so this day’ (Clio, 16). His last known published work, An introduction to the theory of the human mind, appeared in 1771. He apparently laboured for many years on a treatise on the ‘instincts, passions and affections of man’ but lost the only copy of the manuscript.
Usher is an intriguing character who contributed to the debate on penal laws against catholics and on enlightenment philosophy. His Free examination went through seven editions (the last in 1808) and Clio was published at least eight times (the last in 1809). He jettisoned all the essential ingredients that made up protestant landowning families such as the Ushers in mid eighteenth-century Ireland; he converted to Roman catholicism, sold off his family estate, moved away from his forebears, and wrote books that used counter-enlightenment philosophy to support catholics rather than justify the rule of a protestant minority in Ireland. He lacked the practical skills necessary to run an estate or business and was content to bury himself in bookish pursuits. He was small in stature and seems to have succumbed to a tuberculosis-like disease, which he may have caught from his wife. He died in 1772, aged about 52, in London.