William Paca

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William Paca
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland
In office
December 22, 1789 – October 13, 1799
Appointed byGeorge Washington
Preceded bySeat established by 1 Stat. 73
Succeeded byJames Winchester
3rd Governor of Maryland
In office
November 22, 1782 – November 26, 1785
Preceded byThomas Sim Lee
Succeeded byWilliam Smallwood
Personal details
Born(1740-10-31)October 31, 1740
Province of Maryland,
British America
DiedOctober 13, 1799(1799-10-13) (aged 58)
Wye Plantation,
Queen Anne's County,
Resting placeWye Plantation
Queen Anne's County,
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania (B.A., M.A.)
Inner Temple
read law

William Paca (October 31, 1740 – October 13, 1799) was a Founding Father of the United States who was a signatory to the Continental Association and the United States Declaration of Independence. He was a Maryland delegate to the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress, governor of Maryland, and a district judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

Early life[edit]

Born on October 31, 1740, in Abingdon, Province of Maryland, British America,[1] Paca entered school at the Philadelphia Academy and Charity School in 1752, and went on to attend the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), graduating in 1759 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.[2] He was also to receive a Master of Arts degree from the same institution in 1762, though this required no further study, only that Paca request it and be in good standing.[3] He also attended the Inner Temple in London and read law in 1761[1] with Stephen Bordley and was admitted to the bar that year.[2] Paca entered private practice in Annapolis starting in 1763.[2]

Paca was the child of John Paca (c. 1712 – 1785), a wealthy planter in the area of English heritage, and his wife Elizabeth Smith (?-c. 1766).[2] He was the second son of the family, after his elder brother Aquila, and had five sisters.[3] He courted Mary Chew,[4] the daughter of a prominent Maryland planter, and they were married on May 26, 1763. They had three children, though only their son John Philemon survived into adulthood.[3]

Political career[edit]

Paca was a member of the lower house of the Maryland Proprietary Assembly from 1767 to 1774.[1] He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress from Maryland from 1774 to 1779.[1] He was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776.[1] He was a member of the Maryland Senate from 1776 to 1777, and from 1778 to 1780.[1] He was a judge of the Maryland General Court in 1778.[1] He was a judge of the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture from 1780 to 1782.[5] He was governor of Maryland from 1782 to 1785.[1] He was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1786.[1] He was influential in establishing Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1786.[6] He was a delegate to the Maryland State Convention of 1788, to vote whether Maryland should ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States.[7][6]

Among the other young lawyers in Annapolis at the time was Samuel Chase, who became a close friend and political colleague of Paca.[2] Paca and Chase led local opposition to the British Stamp Act of 1765 and established the Anne Arundel County chapter of the Sons of Liberty.[2]

Federal judicial service[edit]

Paca received a recess appointment from President George Washington on December 22, 1789, to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, to a new seat authorized by 1 Stat. 73.[1] He was nominated to the same position by President Washington on February 8, 1790.[1] He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 10, 1790, and received his commission the same day.[1]

Paca's career on the federal bench had a significant impact on the admiralty jurisdiction of the Federal courts and what was to become the principal business of the Supreme Court over the subsequent four decades. As the first federal judge for the District Court of Maryland, he rendered an opinion on the case of Betsey that had far reaching consequences when it was overturned by the Supreme Court. In that case, Paca argued on solid precedents of international and British law that the District Court did not have jurisdiction over the awarding of prizes brought into American ports by foreign privateers. The Supreme Court asserted otherwise in seriatim opinions and established an exclusive jurisdiction over prize cases vested in the Federal District Courts that took that privilege away from what had been the responsibility of foreign consulates. Paca's opinion was the first District Court opinion to be published, and although ultimately reversed, it provides insight into the extensive legal training of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an author/compiler of several provisions of what became the Bill of Rights.[8]

Death and legacy[edit]

Paca's judicial service terminated on October 13, 1799, due to his death at his estate of Wye River, in Queen Anne's County, Maryland,[1] and was interred in a family cemetery on the estate.[6][Note 1]

Paca was admitted as an honorary member of The Society of the Cincinnati in the state of Maryland in 1783.[9][10] "The resolution conferring the honor, adopted November 22, 1783, reads in part: ... In consideration of the abilities, merit, patriotism of His Excellency, Governor Paca, this society direct that Secretary-General Williams wait on His Excellency and inform him that this society do themselves the honor to consider him as an honorary member."[11] He later served as the vice president of the Maryland Society from 1784-1787.[12] Unlike hereditary members, honorary members are not eligible to be represented by a living descendant.[13]

His Annapolis home, the Paca House and Garden, was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971.[14] The William Paca Club in New Providence, New Jersey, is named in his honor. The club cites the fact that Paca was the only Italian-American besides Caesar Rodney to sign the Declaration of Independence as the reason for bestowing him this honor.[15] Paca-Carroll House at St. John's College is named for Paca and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll.[16]

Alleged Italian ancestry[edit]

Paca has been described as being of Italian ancestry, from Abruzzo.[17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24] According to Stanley South, "[t]he rumor that the name was Italian came from a remark made in 1911 by James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who commented that he thought a relationship existed between Paca and the Italian family Pecci".[25] In a July 18, 1937, letter to the New York Times, a self-described descendant of Paca claimed:

The ancestors of William Paca were of Italian and English origin. The name is said to have originally been spelled Pacci [sic].

However, in an interview with Giovanni Schiavo, the letter writer apparently attributed the suggestion that the name was Pecci to Cardinal Gibbons.[26] Schiavo also reported that Paca mentioned Pope Leo XIII, whose surname was Pecci, during the interview.[26] Stiverson and Jacobsen reported that spellings of the surname of William Paca's immigrant ancestor Robert include Peaker, Pecker, Peaca, Peca, and Paka.[27] Neither "Pecci" nor "Pacci" (nor "Pacca") are attested, but that could be attributed to the fact that the Italian spelling of the name would have simply been difficult or unfamiliar to the English-speaking clerks of the time.

If the Paca family did have Italian origins, they were distant. William Paca's father John Paca was born in Maryland, as was his grandfather Aquila Paca (c.1675 - 1721). His great-grandfather Robert Paca was born in England in 1632, arrived in Maryland by 1651 and may also have gone by the surname "Peaker."[28][29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ His obituaries report he died on October 13, 1799, so the date of October 23, reported by some sources, may be in error. See:
    • Federal Gazette (Baltimore, MD), October 16, 1799
    • Daily Advertiser (New York, NY), October 21, 1799
    • Centinel of Liberty (Georgetown, DC), October 22, 1799
    • New-York Gazette (New York, NY), October 22, 1799


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m William Paca at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Goodrich, p. 346 and Russo, William Paca
  3. ^ a b c Russo, William Paca
  4. ^ "Biography of Mary Chew Paca – Colonial Hall". Retrieved August 1, 2016.
  5. ^ "Journals of the Continental Congress --FRIDAY, JANUARY 21, 1780". memory.loc.gov.
  6. ^ a b c United States Congress. "William Paca (id: P000001)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  7. ^ Secretary of State of Maryland (1915). Maryland Manual 1914–1915: A Compendium of Legal, Historical and Statistical Information relating to the State of Maryland. Annapolis, Maryland, USA: The Advertiser-Republican.
  8. ^ Peter G. Fish, Federal Justice in the Mid-Atlantic South: United States Courts from Maryland to the Carolinas, 1789–1835 (2002).
  9. ^ Thomas, William Sturgis (1929). Members of the Society of the Cincinnati, Original, Hereditary and Honorary; With a Brief Account of the Society's History and Aims New York: T.A. Wright, p. 114.
  10. ^ The Society of the Cincinnati webpage Archived January 27, 2021, at the Wayback Machine, accessed January 28, 2021
  11. ^ Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 37 Baltimore, MD: The Maryland Historical Society. 1942. p. 15.
  12. ^ Metcalf, Bryce (1938). Original Members and Other Officers Eligible to the Society of the Cincinnati, 1783-1938: With the Institution, Rules of Admission, and Lists of the Officers of the General and State Societies Strasburg, VA: Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., p. 22.
  13. ^ Thomas, p. 12.
  14. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
  15. ^ "Our History - How it All Began". The William Paca Club. Archived from the original on August 3, 2017. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
  16. ^ DeVille, Taylor (June 5, 2020). "Towson University committee to explore name change for dorms named for slave-owning Marylanders". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved January 28, 2022.
  17. ^ Signers of the Declaration: William Paca, Maryland National Park Service; accessed March 13, 2008.
  18. ^ Caso, p. 57 and Welsh, They Too Made America Great; Branden Books, 1978. Online source: [1]; accessed March 13, 2008. This history includes a rather detailed exploration and affirmation of the well established Italian origin of the Paca family of Maryland in response to the earlier Stiverson and Jacobsen text.
  19. ^ Maryland, The Seventh State Website for the book Maryland, The SeventhcalebJohn T. Marck, author; accessed March 13, 2008.
  20. ^ "Italian American Contributions" Archived May 20, 2013, at the Wayback Machine The National Italian American Foundation Website; accessed March 13, 2008.
  21. ^ The Italian-American Web-site of New York "William Paca;" accessed March 13, 2008
  22. ^ NIAF MileStones of the Italian American Experience Archived January 13, 2008, at the Wayback Machine " 1774 – William Paca, original signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Francesco Vigo, advance the American Revolution;" accessed March 13, 2008.
  23. ^ P.S. 155 Playground, William Paca School History New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Web-site; accessed: March 13, 2008.
  24. ^ Echoes of Abruzzo and Molise in America Archived May 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine; Omero Sabatini, author. Abruzzo Molise Heritage Society Web-site; accessed March 13, 2008.
  25. ^ South, Stanley A. An Archaeological Evolution. New York: Springer, 2005. p. 202
  26. ^ a b Giovanni Ermenegildo Schiavo. 1976. The Italians in America Before the Revolution. New York: Vigo Press. p. 74.
  27. ^ Stiverson, G. A., & Jacobsen, P. R. 1976. William Paca, a biography. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society. p. 26.
  28. ^ Mackenzie, George Norbury, and Nelson Osgood Rhoades, editors. Colonial Families of the United States of America: in Which is Given the History, Genealogy and Armorial Bearings of Colonial Families Who Settled in the American Colonies From the Time of the Settlement of Jamestown, 13th May, 1607, to the Battle of Lexington, 19th April, 1775. 7 volumes. 1912. Reprinted, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1966, 1995. p. 395-397
  29. ^ Hester Dorsey Richardson, Side-lights on Maryland History: With Sketches of Early Maryland Families, 194-200


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Maryland
Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by
Seat established by 1 Stat. 73
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland
Succeeded by