William Paca

Associated Locations:

  • Hartford County, Maryland – Birthplace

Associated Dates:

  • October 31, 1740 – Born

William Paca (October 31, 1740 – October 23, 1799) was a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of Maryland, and later Governor of Maryland and a United States federal judge.

Life Sketch from Lives of the Signers

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

William Paca was the descendant of a wealthy planter on the east shore in Maryland. He was born at Wye Hall, his paternal residence, in the year 1740. His early moral and intellectual training was carefully attended to, and at a proper age he was placed in the Philadelphia College, whence he graduated, after a course of arduous and profitable study, with great credit to himself. He then commenced the study of the law with Mr. Hammond and Mr. Hall, of Annapolis, and Samuel Chase, his subsequent Congressional colleague, was a fellow student.

Mr. Paca, was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty, and the next year (1761), he was chosen a member of the Provincial Assembly. When the Stamp Act, in 1765, amused the people of the colonies to their common danger, Mr. Paca, with Mr. Chase and Mr. Carroll, warmly opposed its operation. And every succeeding measure of the British government, asserting its right to tax the Americans without their consent, was fearlessly condemned by him, and thus he soon obtained the disapprobation of the royal governor of the Province, and of those who adhered to the king and parliament. Like Mr. Chase, he became very popular with the people by his patriotic conduct.

He approved of the proposition for a General Congress in 1774, and he zealously promoted the meeting of the people in county conventions to express their sentiments upon this point. He was appointed by a State Convention of Maryland, one of its live representatives in the Continental Congress, who were instructed to “agree to all measures which might be deemed necessary to obtain a redress of American grievances.” Mr. Paca was re-elected in 1775, and continued a member of Congress until 17 78, when he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of his state. Like Mr. Chase, Mr. Paca was much embarrassed in Congress by the opposition of his constituents to independence, and their loyal adherence to the British Crown, as manifested in their instructions, frequently repeated in the early part of 1776. Even as late as the middle of May, they passed a resolution prohibiting their delegates from voting for independence; but on the twenty-eighth of the same month, remarkable change in their opinions took place, and they ceased praying for the King and royal family! This was a sort of half wheel, and toward the latter part of June the convention finished its evolutions by a “right about face” and withdrew their restrictions upon the votes of their delegates. Thus relieved, Mr. Paca and his associates continued their efforts to effect a declaration of independence with more zeal than ever, and recorded their votes for the severance of the political bond of union with Britain, on the fourth of July following. On the second of August, they fearlessly affixed their signatures to the parchment.

About the beg-inning of 1778, Mr. Paca was appointed Chief Justice of the State of Maryland. He performed the duties with great ability and fidelity until 1782, when he was elected President or Governor of the State funder the old Articles of Confederation. He held the executive office one year, and then retired to private life.

In 1788, he was a member of the convention of Maryland, called to act upon the ratification of the Federal Constitution. He was a firm advocate there for its ratification, which event took place in November. After the New Constitution had gone into effect, and offices under it were to be filled, President Washington nominated him Judge for the district of Maryland! This office he held until the period of his death, which was in the year 1799, when he was in the sixtieth year of his age. He was a pure and active patriot, a consistent Christian, and a valuable citizen, in every sense of the word. His death was mourned as a public calamity; and his life, pure and spotless, active and useful, exhibited a bright exemplar for the imitation of the young men of America. 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

William Paca was born on the 31st of October, 1740. He was the second son of John Paca, a gentleman of large estate, who resided in the county of Harford, in the state of Maryland. His father, sensible of the importance of a good education, placed his son, at a proper age, in the college at Philadelphia, at that time under the care of the learned and eloquent Dr. William Smith. On commencing bachelor of arts, in 1750, he entered the office of Stephen Bradley, a distinguished lawyer of Annapolis, for file purpose of pursuing the profession of law.

Mr. Paca was a diligent student, and early gave promise of eminence in his profession. He was licensed to practice in 1761, and was admitted to the bar at the provincial court in 1764. He established himself at Annapolis, where he had for his competitors, John Price, and Samuel Chase, with the latter of whom he became intimately acquainted, and with whom he acted an important part during the revolutionary struggle.

The political career of Mr. Paca commenced in 1771, at which time he was appointed to represent the county in the popular branch of the legislature. At this time, and for several years after, much contention existed between the government of Maryland, which was proprietary, and the people. The government consisted of three branches: a house of burgesses, the members of which were selected by the people. The second branch was called the upper house, the members of which were elected and removed, at the pleasure of the proprietor. The governor formed the third branch, without whose assent no act of assembly was valid. And in addition to this, the proprietor himself, who generally resided in England, claimed the privilege of dissenting from such laws as he pleased, although they had received the sanction of the above branches of the legislature. Hence, there was often no small collision between the lower house, or those who represented the people, and the upper house and governor, who were considered as under the influence of the proprietor.

In this provincial assembly, Mr. Paca represented the people, whose interests he strongly felt, and faithfully guarded. The interests of the proprietor and of the people were often thought to be at variance. An avaricious and oppressive spirit marked the proceedings of the proprietor and his partisans. It was important, therefore, for the people, to have men to represent them in the house of burgesses, who understood their rights, and were sufficiently bold to assert and maintain them. Such a man was Mr. Paca. He was learned as to a knowledge of law, and of the principles of the proprietary government; and at all times, when necessary, sufficiently courageous to resist the aggressions of avarice, and the usurpations of tyranny.

The following anecdote wilt illustrate the bold and independent spirit of Mr. Paca. In 1771, an act expired in Maryland, the object of which was to regulate the staple of tobacco, and the fees of certain officers. This act the house of burgesses refused to continue, without a reduction of the officers’ fees. As neither branch of the assembly would recede from the ground it had taken, the fee bill fell. In this state of things, the governor issued his proclamation directing the officers to proceed according to the old law.

The commotion excited throughout the province was great, and at some places, particularly at Annapolis, even tumultuous. At this latter place, a multitude of citizens collected to express their abhorrence of the conduct of the governor. At the head of this multitude were Mr. Paca and Mr. Chase. A procession was formed, and with these two gentlemen for leaders, they proceeded to a gallows which bad been previously erected, upon which they hung the governor’s proclamation, in due form, with a halter. At length it was taken down, enclosed in a coffin prepared for the purpose, and consigned to a grave dug beneath the gallows. During the whole ceremony, minute guns were fired from a schooner owned by Mr. Paca, which was stationed at no great distance. In conclusion, the citizens marched back to the city, where they devoted the remainder of the day to festivity.

The controversy to which we have now alluded had long existed, and continued to exist, quite down to the era of the revolutionary struggle. When that struggle commenced, about the year 1774, there were men, therefore, in Maryland, who were well prepared to enter into it, with energy and decision. They had been trained in the school of controversy. They had studied every chapter relating to American rights; and possessing a boldness and a courage commensurate with their knowledge, they were prepared to act a decided part.

Of the illustrious congress of 1774, Mr. Paca was a member, in conjunction with Samuel Chase, and several others. They were instructed by the Maryland convention, from which they received their appointment; “To effect one general plan of conduct, operating on the commercial connection of the colonies with the mother country, for the relief of Boston, and the preservation of American liberty.” As a member of this congress, Mr. Paca so well pleased his constituents, that he was re-appointed to the same station, until the year 1778, at the close of which he retired.

Mr. Paca was an open advocate for a declaration of independence, as were several of his colleagues. For the accomplishment of such an object, they labored with unwearied zeal. A majority of the people of Maryland, however, were not prepared for such a measure. They still felt strong affection for the king, and the mother country, towards whom they expressed by their convention, early in the year 1776, many professions of loyalty and regard.

At the same time, they strictly enjoined their representatives in congress, not to consent to any propositions for publishing a declaration of independence, and accompanied these restrictions with a resolution, that Maryland would not be bound by any vote of congress, which should sanction such n measure.

In the life of Mr. Chase, we have related the manner in which a change was effected among the people in relation to this subject, particularly through the instrumentality of Mr. Chase. On the 28th of June, the convention of Maryland recalled their instructions to their delegates, whom they left free to vote in favor, of a declaration of independence. In consequence, their vote was given in its favor, shortly after which the convention expressed their approbation of the measure, and in support of it pledged their lives and fortunes and sacred honor.

Early in the year 1778, Mr. Paca was appointed chief justice of the supreme court of his state, an office which he continued to exercise with great ability, until 1780, when he was advanced by congress to the still more important office of chief judge of the court of appeals, in prize and admiralty cases. In this new station, he acquitted himself with great honor. He entered with ability into the subject of international law, and had the happiness to learn that his decisions were highly approved, both at home and abroad.

In 1782, he was elected to the chief magistracy of his native state. Here, again, he was distinguished for great correctness and integrity, for dignity and simplicity. He entered with zeal into the interests of literature and religion, both of which he promoted by his private donations, and his executive patronage. These subjects he officially recommended to the general assembly in the following language “It is far from our intention,” said he, “to embarrass your deliberations with a variety of objects; but we cannot pass over matters of so high concernment as religion and learning. The sufferings of the ministers of the gospel of all denominations, during the war, have been very considerable; and the perseverance and firmness of those who discharged their sacred functions under many discouraging circumstances, claim our acknowledgments and thanks. The bill of rights and form of government recognize the principle of public support for the ministers of the gospel, and ascertain the mode. Anxiously solicitous for the blessings of government, and the welfare and happiness of our citizens, and thoroughly convinced of the powerful influence of religion, when diffused by its respectable teachers, we beg leave most seriously and warmly to recommend, among the first objects of your attention on the return of peace, the making such provision as the constitution, in this case, authorizes and approves.”

The recommendation of Governor Paca was kindly received by the assembly, which passed several acts in aid of the several denominations of Christians, which were at that time numerous in Maryland. The interest which he manifested in favor of religion, met the warm approbation of the various sects; and from the Episcopalians, in particular, it elicited, through their convention a formal expression of thanks.

After holding the office of chief magistrate for one year, Mr. Paca retired to private life, until 1760, when he again accepted the executive chair for a single year.

In 1789, on the organization of the federal government, he received from President Washington the appointment of judge of the district court of the United States for Maryland. This office he held until the year 1799, when he was summoned to another world, in the sixtieth year of his age.

Mr. Paca was twice married. The first time to a daughter of Samuel Chew, in the year 1761, while he was pursuing the study of law. The second time in 1777, to a daughter of a respectable gentleman of Philadelphia, by the name of Harrison. By the former lady he had five children, one of whom only survives. By the latter he had a son, who died shortly after his mother, whose decease occurred in 1780.

Few men in America, as may be gathered from the preceding sketch, were ever more estimable in their character than Governor Paca. He possessed a mind of superior order, which was greatly improved by his intercourse with mankind, and his extensive acquaintance with books.

In his address he was unusually graceful, and in his social powers was excelled by few. His attention to the young was not the least excellent trait in his character. He sought their company, and took a deep interest in their moral and intellectual improvement. Even after he became governor of the state, he was in the habit of attending a club at Annapolis, composed of young men and gentlemen of science. In this school, many were trained, who afterwards became highly distinguished both as statesmen and lawyers. It was here that that celebrated orator, William Pinkney, first attracted the attention of Judge Chase, an account of whose particularly kind conduct towards him, we have given in the life of that gentleman. We shall only add to this notice of Mr. Paca, that as he lived a life of distinguished usefulness, so he died regretted by all who knew how to estimate moral worth, intellectual elevation, and political integrity. 2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Benjamin Rush

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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