During the revolutionary war, Paine served as both a soldier and a writer of pro-American tracts (refusing to accept pay for his writings) that inspired the colonists to fight on when their spirits were nearly broken. George Washington famously read these words to his troops on Christmas eve 1776:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.After the war, Paine eventually went to England where he wrote the Rights of Man in defense of the French Revolution and the principles of individual liberty. For daring to attempt to spread the principles of the American revolution to England, Paine was charged with sedition and barely escaped to France with his life.
In France, Paine served in the National Convention and protested the execution of King Louis XVI. For daring to prevent the violent radicalism that the Revolution would soon devolve into he was locked in prison and sentenced to death. The American ambasador denied that Paine was an American citizen and if not for the replacement of Morris with Monroe he would have died there.
While Paine was in prison awaiting his death he wrote The Age of Reason, a deistic critique of religion in which he sought to put an end to superstition, dogma, and intolerance.
Paine finally returned to America in 1802. He was met with little enthusiasm because his reputation had suffered much as a result of the publication of The Age of Reason. He spent his remaining days in declining social standing until he passed away in 1809.
"He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
This was the obituary that the nation saw fit to give Thomas Paine when he died in 1809, and it is one of history's great tragedies that only 6 men honored America's debt to Thomas Paine by attending his funeral.
This man, more than any other man, emodied what it meant to be an American. The "some good" that Paine did was to articulate the argument for American independence, to argue against slavery, to argue for the rights of man, to attempt to spread the prinicples of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to England and France, and to try and prevent senseless blood shed.
In The Age of Reason, Paine wrote: "I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy."
This sentiment earned Paine the label of infidel and atheist. This was the "much harm" that Paine did: he sought to reform religion and demanded that his fellow man live up to the American ideal of equality. He was scorned for his honesty and his unwavering devotion to human rights, and because he dared to doubt orthodoxy his legacy has nearly been forgotten.
Additional Information on Paine:
Wikipedia entry on Paine
Robert Green Ingersoll speech 'Thomas Paine'
Christopher Hitchens tribute to Paine
On-line writings of Paine