Paoli was born at Stretta in Rostino, Corsica, the son of Giacinto Paoli (1681-1763), the leader of the Corsican rebels against the Genovese until he went into exile in 1739.
Pasquale Paoli returned to Corsica in 1755 and assumed the title of General of the Corsican Nation. In the following years, Paoli and his army managed to conquer most of the island from the Genovese, who by 1765 only maintained control of a few coastal towns. In 1767 Genova formally sold the rights to the island to France, who invaded the next year. In 1768, Boswell's An Account of Corsica made Paoli famous throughout Europe. In 1769 the French dealt a decisive blow to the Corsican army, and Paoli went into exile in England, where he lived until 1789.
From 1789 until 1793, in the aftermath of the French revolution, he returned to Corsica, this time appointed Lieutenant-General and a representative of the new French leadership. He was eventually forced to go into exile once more, and in 1796 returned to London where he lived until his death.