William Paca of Maryland: Lawyer, Continental Congress Delegate, Judge, Governor, and Declaration of Independence Signer
Benjamin Rush once referred to his fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca, as “beloved and respected by all who knew him, and considered at all times as a sincere patriot and honest man.” John Adams called Paca the “great deliberator,” for the work that Paca did during the First and Second Congressional Congresses. William Paca was a tireless advocate for freedom and justice for Maryland and the 13 colonies, as well as a brilliant lawyer and champion for veterans’ benefits. He was one of four signers of the Declaration from Maryland. He was also one of two signers, Caesar Rodney being the other, who were of Italian heritage.
Paca was born in Maryland in 1740 and very little is known about his early life and education. Most of his papers and diaries were destroyed in a fire at his former home in Maryland in 1879. As a result, we do not have the volumes of information on William Paca that we have regarding other members of the Founding generation.
William Paca graduated from the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1759, and he soon moved to Annapolis, Maryland to begin his legal career. He wanted to become a lawyer, which he did, and in the process of doing so he became very good friends with Samuel Chase and Thomas Stone, two fellow lawyers who would both sign the Declaration of Independence with Paca in 1776.
Paca and Chase also started a Sons of Liberty organization in Annapolis in 1765 to protest the passage of the Stamp Act. Here is where William began his career in politics and his strong opposition to the policies of the British crown. He was a strong early supporter of independence and a lifelong advocate for states’ rights and a person’s individual rights. Paca had a reputation for being more of a quiet, behind the scenes type of a politician, but on one noteworthy occasion, he proved that he could stand in the spotlight to protest a cause as well as anyone. The governor of Maryland refused to rule favorably on a law that Chase and Paca wanted him to support. As a result, and to protest the ruling, Paca and Chase protested the governor’s ruling by “hanging” a paper copy of the law in a public ceremony, then burying it in a tiny coffin with a cannon firing in the distance. A very theatrical and powerful way to prove your point!
William Paca was known as a very charming man who dressed well and married well (twice). He came from a very wealthy family and he married into two wealthy families. He married Mary Chew, known as Molly in 1763 and she passed away in 1774, possibly due to childbirth complications. His second wife, Ann Harrison also passed away at a young age. Paca fathered six children and never re-married after Ann died.
William Paca served in both the First and Second Continental Congresses as a delegate from Maryland. During the debate over independence in the Second Continental Congress, Maryland was a colony that had much debate over whether or not to vote in favor of independence. As Paca waited for word on how to vote on the matter, instructions eventually arrived in Philadelphia that Maryland had agreed to vote for independence and have its delegates sign the document. Paca then cast his vote in favor of independence on July 2, 1776 and he signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.
William Paca cared deeply for the veterans of the American Revolution and he did everything possible after the war to help them in any way that he could, personally, legally and financially. As a result of these actions, in 1783, he became an honorary member of the society of the Cincinnati. Membership in the Society was usually reserved for Revolutionary War officers, but Paca was given this honor due to his constant efforts to support the Revolutionary war veterans.
After the Revolutionary War ended, Paca served in various legal roles within the state of Maryland, including serving as their third governor. He would also later help to push forward many of the amendments to the constitution that would become the Bill of Rights. His commitment to personal and individual freedoms in the Bill of Rights is part of his lasting legacy. William Paca died in 1799.
Val Crofts serves as Chief Education and Programs Officer at the American Village in Montevallo, Alabama. Val previously taught high school U.S. History, U.S. Military History and AP U.S. Government for 19 years in Wisconsin, and was recipient of the DAR Outstanding U.S. History Teacher of the Year for the state of Wisconsin in 2019-20. Val also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School as a social studies teacher for 9 years. He is also a proud member of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission (America 250), which is currently planning events to celebrate the 250th birthday of the Declaration of Independence.
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