John Palmer Usher was born in New York in 1816. After studying law he moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he worked as a lawyer. Usher joined the Whig Party and did not become a member of the Republican Party until 1856. In 1860 he supported Edward Bates for the party's presidential nomination but later switched to Abraham Lincoln.
When Caleb Smith became Secretary of the Interior he appointed Usher as his assistant. Indifferent to African American civil rights and a supporter of racial segregation, he devised a scheme to accommodate former slaves on land confiscated from Texas. However, the plan was rejected by Abraham Lincoln.
On 8th January, 1863, Lincoln selected Usher to replace Caleb Smith as his Secretary of the Interior. Lincoln had not been impressed with Usher's abilities but needed to keep the support of the Republican Party in Indiana. Over the next two years Usher championed the gathering of Native Americans on reservations in the Southwest. He was guilty of taking political decisions that helped his fellow shareholders in the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
A strong opponent of the Radical Republican, Usher constantly warned Lincoln that Salmon Chase was after replacing him as president. Lincoln's need for Usher in the Cabinet came to an end when Henry McCulloch, a fellow Republican from Indiana, became Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln sacked Usher but he did not leave office until the arrival of President Andrew Johnson.
After leaving the Cabinet Usher worked as chief counsel of the Union Pacific Railroad. John Palmer Usher died in 1889.