Founding Fathers Friday: William Paca

by Derrick G. Jeter

An early biography of founder William Paca, published in 1848, summarized his life like this: “He was a pure and active patriot, a consistent Christian, and a valuable citizen, in every sense of the word. . . . his life, pure and spotless, active and useful, exhibited a bright exemplar for the imitation of the young men of America.” Some early biographies of the founders tended to worship these extraordinary men, and not always tell the truth. Such is the case with Paca.
Many founders faced difficulties during and after the American Revolution, and Paca was no different. The son of a wealthy Maryland planter, Paca received a good education in Philadelphia and London before turning his attention to the law. He and Samuel Chase were attorneys in the same Annapolis law firm, and became fast friends. Married to an Annapolis belle while in his twenties, the marriage ended in tragedy after ten years when his beloved died. Paca remarried, but his second wife died within three years, followed by their two-year-old child. In all, Paca lost three children during his life time.
An early patriot, Paca, along with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll, opposed the Stamp Act of 1765—and almost every bill signed by the royal governor. One particular bill was so offensive to Paca and the Maryland Sons of Liberty that they hung it in effigy until “dead,” placed it in a coffin, and then buried it under the gibbet. An anchored ship in the Chesapeake Bay, owned by Paca, fired a small cannon to salute the “dead” bill. Paca also objected to a tax bill passed by the Maryland Assembly and signed by the governor which would collect money for the Church of England. Chase joined Paca in opposing the bill, though his father was a minister of the church, because he believed it wrong for the government to collect taxes for the benefit of one single religion.
Paca’s activities against Parliament and the royal governor branded him a hero among the patriots, but a traitor among the loyalists. But as did most of the patriots in other colonies, Maryland send Paca to the First Continental Congress in 1774; he was re-elected in 1775 and served until 1779.
Paca was in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776. During that summer, Paca, and his fellow Maryland delegates, waited for word from the Annapolis Convention—the rebel-led assembly—for authorization to vote for independence. As the date approached for the official vote, they still waited. When Chase and Carroll returned to Philadelphia from their ill-fated mission to Canada and learned that Maryland still remained undecided, they immediate set out for Annapolis. Chase and Carroll were successful in persuading the Annapolis Convention that independence was inevitable, so “on the twenty-eighth of [May] a remarkable change in their opinions took place, and they ceased praying for the king and royal family!” When instructions reached Paca in Philadelphia to vote yea, he, Thomas Stone, and John Rogers (who left Congress before signing the Declaration) voted in the affirmative.
After signing the engrossed document on August 2, 1776, Paca remained in Congress until his appointment as chief justice of Maryland in 1779. He was then elected the third governor of the state in 1785. Paca also served on the state convention which ratified of the new Constitution; he also set forth amendments which would become foundational for the Bill of Rights.
At the end of his life Paca was said to be a lonely man. He had already lost two wives and three children—and he wasn’t even sixty yet. Perhaps to ease his pain and loneliness, he began an affair with a free black woman—scandalous in the eighteenth century. They had one child together, Hester, to whom he devoted the remaining years of his life.
Though we often place our founders in the temple of the heavens, we should remember that they were very human men, facing the same trials and temptations we face. William Paca did not live a “consistent Christian” or a “pure and spotless” life—that much is clear. But such trophies are too much for any man to achieve. However, there can be no doubt that he was “a pure and active patriot,” “a valuable citizen,” and as such “a bright exemplar for the imitation of the young men of America.”