William Paca

William Paca, Maryland (1740-1799)

Charles Wilson Peale’s famous portrait of William Paca, painted in 1772, says much about the man. With arm akimbo, he is very much the self-assured diplomat, lawyer, planter, and patriot. An extremely attractive, tall, yet large, man, he exudes the charm, fashionable demeanor, and educated manner for which he was known. With a bust of Cicero beside him and his Annapolis garden and summerhouse in the background, Paca fills the seven and a half foot canvas with the presence and confidence that would help win independence for the colonies. Many years later, Peale described his famous commission in these words: “A handsome man, more than six feet high, of portly appearance, being well educated and accustomed to the best company, [Paca] was graceful in his movements and complaisant to everyone; in short, his manners were of the first polish. In the early period when the people’s eyes first became opened to their rights, …[he] made the first stand for the Independence of the People.”

Because all of Paca’s papers and diaries were destroyed when his house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore burned in 1879, it is portraits like this, in paint as well as print, that we must turn to in order to learn about the character and life of William Paca.

William Paca was born on October 31, 1740 at his family’s home in what is now Harford County, north of Baltimore. He was the second son of John and Elizabeth Smith Paca and the fourth generation of Pacas in Maryland. His great-grandfather Robert Paca had emigrated from England. The name Paca is pronounced PAY-ka; we know this because of a rhyme that William Paca wrote. The name was most likely a corruption of the name Peaker, Packe, or Peake, to name a few; contemporary documents that have shown different versions of Robert Paca’s last name.

Robert Paca was brought to the colonies before 1660 by a man named John Hall, who owned an estate in Anne Arundel County. To pay his transportation costs, Paca most likely indentured himself to Hall as a servant. After Hall’s death, Robert Paca married his widow, and thus acquired a family, position, and considerable property. Though Robert Paca did not die a wealthy man, he was able to put his family on the path to becoming landowners, planters, and public servants.

William Paca’s grandfather, Aquila Paca, Robert’s son, was able to purchase land at very reasonable prices and thus began his goal of amassing extensive acreage to assure that his sons would have sizeable estates and that his daughters would be able to marry well. He too married well; his wife Martha Phillips was the daughter of a wealthy planter, who left her one-fourth of his fortune. Although Aquila Paca and Martha Phillips were married in the Anglican Church, he joined the Society of Friends, and their second son John, William Paca’s father, was raised as a Quaker. Aquila Paca was an important member of the community and held prominent positions. He served as sheriff of Baltimore County, as a county justice of the peace, and as a delegate in the provincial legislature, the General Assembly.

John Paca, William’s father, followed in his father’s footsteps. He too married well, became a wealthy planter, and served the people of Baltimore County in many capacities. He was a justice of the peace, a captain in the county militia, and was elected a delegate to the Lower House of the General Assembly, just like his father. His marriage to Elizabeth Smith brought him land and personal property of great value. It should also be noted that John Paca left the Quakers and returned to the Anglican Church, where he was married in 1732. John and Elizabeth Paca had seven children, two boys and five girls, all of whom were born in the Paca house near the village of Abingdon, in Baltimore County, the section of which later became a part of Harford County. As mentioned earlier, William Paca, who was born on October 31, 1740, was their second son.

Although there is no written documentation about William Paca’s boyhood, it would have entailed the same experiences as other sons of affluent planters of that era. He would have ridden horses, hunted, and explored the environs of his father’s plantation. Though there is no record as to whether he went to a local school or was privately tutored, Paca would have received a traditional education with Latin and religion as the core curriculum. As the second son, William Paca would not have inherited the bulk of his father’s estate, so his father made sure that he had an education and a career, in his case, in law.

At age twelve, William, along with his older brother, was sent to the Academy and Charity School in Philadelphia. William Paca graduated from the College of Philadelphia in 1759. Besides receiving an excellent education, Paca also graduated knowing well-connected people in Pennsylvania and Maryland. At nineteen years of age, William Paca arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, ready to embark on his career in law.

Annapolis was the perfect place for William Paca to begin his career, since it had become the provincial capital. He continued to study law and became the clerk for Stephen Bordley, the preeminent lawyer in the area. Paca helped found a debating society called the Forensic Club, which provided him with not only a means to develop his speaking skills but also to develop many social and political contacts. The Club debated the issues of the time, including whether democracy was a better form of government than monarchy. It was here that he also forged his friendship with Samuel Chase, who would also sign the Declaration of Independence.

Paca completed his legal training at the Middle Temple in London, which added to his prestige, and in 1763 he received a Master of Arts degree from the College of Philadelphia. He was later admitted to the bar of the Provincial Court in 1764. William Paca had everything that was needed to launch a career in law. He had an excellent education, he had excellent mentoring, and he had excellent training in the Mayor’s Court. But he still lacked the social status he would need to ensure that his career would be a successful one, and one that would allow him to move effortlessly into colonial politics. His position was assured when in 1763 he married Ann Mary Chew, whose nickname was Molly.

The daughter of Henrietta Maria Lloyd and Samuel Chew, who died when she was an infant, Molly Chew was related to many of the prominent and wealthy families in the colony. Molly was a direct descendant of John Chew who arrived at Jamestown in 1622, with three servants, on the ship Charitie. She was raised in the home of her stepfather, Daniel Dulany, one of the richest and most politically influential landowners in the province. The Pacas soon moved into the five-part Georgian mansion they built in Annapolis.

In 1765 William Paca and Samuel Chase founded the county’s Sons of Liberty and mobilized support against the Stamp Act.  Paca’s public popularity as a result of his involvement led him to be elected to the city’s Common Council in 1766. The next year he was elected as a delegate to the Lower House, as his forefathers had been. His political career was underway, and his popularity and influence continued to grow, as did his reputation for working diligently behind the scenes, leaving others, such as Chase, to bask in the limelight.

Paca spent much of his time writing letters and newspaper articles in support of independence, and he also wrote many of the speeches that Chase made. But despite being characterized as a private and reserved person, Paca could also display a bold and independent spirit. In 1773, an act expired that regulated tobacco and fees for certain officers. Paca joined other Maryland patriots in urging the governor to not continue the act. But when the governor could not be dissuaded, Paca, with his friend Samuel Chase, staged a protest. They formed a procession leading to a gallows where they hanged the governor’s proclamation. Afterwards they enclosed the proclamation in a coffin, dug a grave, and buried it. To accompany the burial ceremony, guns were fired from a schooner owned by Paca. Even though he certainly preferred to be in the background writing essays and forming strategies, he could also take the lead.

But Paca’s life was shortly beset by tragedy. Molly Chew’s death in 1774 left him grief stricken. She most likely had died as a result of the birth of their third child. The politics of the day, however, soon absorbed his attention. The oppressive Tea Act and the erosion of trust between England and the colonies led Paca to organize committees and actively oppose the Boston Port Act. In September, 1774, Paca joined the first Continental Congress when it met in Philadelphia. It was here that Paca became friends with John Adams, who referred to him as the “deliberater” and wrote to Samuel Chase on July 1, 1776, that “Paca [acted] generously and nobly” during the convention. Paca signed the Olive Branch Petition in 1775, in the failed attempt to achieve reconciliation with Great Britain.

William Paca was, in the words of Benjamin Rush, “beloved and respected by all who knew him, and considered at all times as a sincere patriot and honest man.” Paca and his fellow Marylanders worked hard to gather support throughout Maryland in support of independence. When the Maryland legislature removed the restrictions on her delegates, Paca voted for independence on July 2, 1776 and signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2. When he signed the Declaration, Paca knew that this was just the beginning of making the promise of freedom a reality for the people of America.

Paca continued his role as a delegate in the Continental Congress in 1776 and 1777. Paca was elected a member of the Senate of Maryland in November, 1776, and in 1778 he was appointed a judge of the General Court. It was up to him to maintain stability on the Eastern Shore amidst outbreaks of treason and insurrections. He resigned later that year after accomplishing this goal. But the bench appealed to him, and in 1780 Congress appointed him judge of a newly created Court of Appeals.

In 1777, William Paca married for the second time, Ann Harrison, a young woman sixteen years his junior and the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia merchant Henry Harrison, who had been the mayor of Philadelphia. She too brought a considerable fortune to the marriage. They split their time between Philadelphia and Paca’s Wye Island estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Paca sold the house in Annapolis. Ann Paca died in 1780 after a long illness, perhaps as a result of childbirth; she was only twenty-three years old. Paca never remarried.

William Paca had six children, two of whom were illegitimate. He had three children with his first wife, Mary Chew: Henrietta Maria, who was born in 1764 and died in infancy; John Philemon (1771-1840) who married Juliana Tilghman; and William who was born in 1774 and died five years later.

Mary Chew Paca became the guardian of her niece, also named Henrietta Maria, and this has caused some confusion in the past, with some authors assuming that she was also a daughter of the Pacas, though she was not. Paca’s second wife, Ann Harrison, had one child, Henry, who was born in 1778 and died in 1781. Thus, of his legitimate heirs, only John Philemon lived into adulthood.

Paca also fathered two illegitimate daughters: Hester, born in Philadelphia in 1775 to a “mulatto” woman named Levina; and Henrietta Maria, his second daughter with that name, born c. 1777 to Sarah Joice of Annapolis. It is important to note that Paca provided for the education and welfare of both of his “natural” daughters. Though there is no record of Hester reaching adulthood, Henrietta Maria did, and records show that she married and moved with her husband to Kentucky.

In recognition of his wartime services and support for the military, Paca was made a member of the Society of the Cincinnati and became Vice President of the Maryland Chapter from 1784 until 1787. This was a remarkable achievement and recognition, since membership in the Society was reserved for army officers.

A firm believer in states rights and individual rights, Paca was a leader of the Antifederalist movement in Maryland. Even though he had many reservations, he voted in 1788 to approve the Constitution. He advocated 28 amendments to the Constitution, including those on freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and protection against judicial tyranny, and many of his proposed amendments became a part of the Bill of Rights. Paca continued his service to the state and the nation, when President George Washington appointed him judge for the Court of Maryland in 1789. He held this post until his death.

William Paca died on Wye Island on October 13, 1799, a few weeks shy of his fifty-ninth birthday. He was buried on the grounds of the estate, a few miles north of Easton, Maryland.

The legacy of William Paca can still be experienced by visiting his home in Annapolis. The William Paca House and Gardens have been meticulously restored, complete with the gardens and summerhouse, depicted in Charles Willson Peale’s famous portrait of Maryland’s signer, and is managed by the Historic Annapolis Foundation. The construction of the home was completed in 1765, in a Georgian style evoking the English country villas of the time, and has been restored. The interior features antique furniture, silverware, and works of art. Each room is designed to show various aspects of the life of William and Mary Paca. The home is noteworthy for its two acres of elegant gardens restored to their original appearance, including five terraces, a fish-shaped pond, and a wilderness garden.

William Paca’s House and Gardens, Annapolis

Wye Hall, his estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is now in private hands. The original house was destroyed by fire in 1879, and the present Wye Hall was built in 1936 on the foundation of the country house built by William Paca. It is a five-part house designed in the Colonial Revival style, and was built as a residence for the former King Edward the VIII of the United Kingdom and his wife, the former Wallis Warfield of Baltimore. A highway marker has been placed near Paca’s Wye plantation.

But more importantly, his legacy can be felt every time one enjoys the liberties that the signers and patriots fought for. William Paca put his life and property on the line when he represented the citizens of Maryland at the Continental Congress and when he supported the troops who fought in the Revolutionary War. His reputation as a cultured, purposeful, and responsible man earned him the respect of his peers and the citizenship at large. In addition to signing the Declaration of Independence, which launched this country on its path towards democracy and freedom, William Paca set forth the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights. Though his life was touched with tragedy, Paca continued to dedicate himself to public service – one that gave birth to a new state and a new nation.

In Washington, D.C., near the Washington monument, is a small park and lagoon dedicated to the memory of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the 56 granite blocks there bears the name of “William Paca.” John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence”, hangs in the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. Near the left side of the painting, there are five standing figures. William Paca is the first standing figure on the left, and standing next to him is his good friend Samuel Chase.

Virginia White, descendant, 2011

Sources

  • Andrews, Matthew Page. History of Maryland: Province and State 1965, Pennsylvania: Tradition Press.
  • Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, A Biographical and Genealogical Reference, 1997, McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640
  • Ferris, Robert G., The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,, Washington: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1975.
  • Goodrich, Charles A., Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1829. (Colonial Hall)
  • Howard, Hugh. Houses of the Founding Fathers. New York: Artisan, 2007.
  • Lossing, B. J., Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Originally published in 1848. Reprinted in 1995 by Wallbuilder Press. P.O. Box 397, Aledo, TX 76008-0397, 2008
  • Russo, Jean B. A Question of Reputation: William Paca’s Courtship of Polly Tilghman. Annapolis, Historic Annapolis Foundation, 2000.
  • Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Maryland Vol. II. Pennsylvania, Tradition Press, 1967.
  • Stiverson, Gregory A. and Phebe R. Jacobsen. William Paca: A Biography. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1976.
  • White, Frank F. The Governors of Maryland: 1777-1970. Baltimore: Twentieth Century, 1970.
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