Paoli was born on 6 April, 1725, in Stretta in the parish of Rostino, a smaller part of Morosaglia in central-northern Corsica. He was the son of Giacinto Paoli, who in 1729 led Corsican rebels against the Genoese rulers of island. His early years were spent in rejection of foreign rule of Corsica. In 1739 Pasquale followed his father who had been bannished by the Marquis de Maillebois. They went to Naples where Pascal followed a military career, entering as a cadet in father's regiment in 1741. After studying at the Royal Academy in Naples he then went into garrison both in Sicily and Elba (1754).
Paoli returned to Corsica on April 29, 1755, and was elected General in chief of the Corsican Nation on 13 July, independence was proclaimed and an enlightened republican constitution written. Paoli gave the island a civil administration, a justice system, a currency, a university (at Corte) and founded an army. With this army he then drove the Genovese from all of the island apart from a few coastal towns. Paoli's ideas of independence, democracy and liberty gained support from such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Raynal, and Mably. The publication in 1766 of An Account of Corsica by James Boswell made Paoli famous all over Europe. In 1767 Corsica took the island of Capraia from the Genoese, and the latter, despairing of ever being able to rule Corsica again, offered the island to France via the Treaty of Versailles of 15 May 1768 in return for a loan of 2 million francs. When Louis XV's troops took possession of the island Paoli incited the Corsican people to rise up against the invader. He was however finally defeated in 1769 at the Battle of Ponte Nuovo (8 May, 1769). Paoli then went into exile, finding a home in England and travelling throughout Europe.
After the French Revolution Paoli received an amnesty because his ideas were close to those of the Revolution, and he returned to Corsica on 14 July, 1790. He was immediately elected commander in chief of the National Guard and president of the Departmental Directory.
He later however distanced himself from the Convention, disgusted by its excesses. He was as a result accused of being a counter-revolutionary and declared a "traitor to the French Republic". In June 1794, he summoned a consulta (assembly) at Corte in 1793, with himself as president. He was here voted "Father of the Fatherland", and under his leadership Corsica formally seceded from France and united with England. The short-lived Anglo-Corsican Kingdom lasted from June 1794 to October 1796, with Sir Gilbert Elliott as the Viceroy. Paoli retired from public life, moving to to London, in 1795, having obtained a pension from George III. After his departure the islanders rose against the British and in 1796 drove them out with French help (Corsica became a French department) . Paoli was to live in London until his death on 5 February, 1807. He was buried, as he wished, in St Pancras Cemetery, (London), and in 1889, his mortal remains were exhumed and buried in the Paoli family chapel in his native town of Morosaglia. The chapel subsequently became the Musée Départemental Pasquale Paoli.