William Paca: Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor

Marc Cole

William Paca of Maryland, born in 1740, was the son of a wealthy planter. His father recognized the young man’s intelligence early on and accordingly rigorously tutored him at home in the classics before sending him to the College of Philadelphia.

After Paca graduated in 1760, he studied law – together with his fellow Marylander, Samuel Chase – in the Annapolis office of some of the most prominent members of the Maryland bar, as was the custom in that day.

One has to wonder what transpired between Chase and Paca as they toiled together in that Annapolis law office. Did they take lunch breaks together? Did they encourage each other in their studies? Or were they competitors? Did they jockey for position in the firm against each other? Or did each desire the other to excel?

We will never know. But we can say with certainty that the two young law students discussed politics as they held, even then, the same views.

And so the lives and destinies of Chase and Paca would be woven together for the coming decades.

Upon entering the bar, both Chase and Paca were chosen as members of the Provincial Assembly. There, both men, though only in their early 20’s, gained reputations for opposing the Stamp Act and every other unjust extension of Royal power into the lives of ordinary Maryland colonial citizens.

Paca was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, again, along with Chase. And once more both men were early supporters of independence, even though they represented a minority opinion of Maryland citizens. In fact, by the summer of 1776, the Maryland delegation to the Second Continental Congress was specifically prohibited from voting for independence!

It was only after Chase’s heroic horseback campaign swing through Maryland in May of 1776 that Paca and indeed the entire Maryland delegation were able to vote for independence with a clear conscience and with the legal authority that they needed.

After Paca signed the Declaration in 1776, he was still only 26 years old. Great things lay ahead for him. He continued to serve in the Continental Congress until 1778, when he became the Chief Justice of Maryland. He served in that capacity until 1782, when he became Governor of Maryland. He was a delegate to the Maryland convention which ratified the Constitution, and in 1789, he was nominated to the federal district bench by President Washington (who also placed his old colleague Chase onto the U.S. Supreme Court a few years later).

Paca served admirably as a federal judge until he died in 1799, having served in each of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Check out Mark’s book: Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor: The Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

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