A poor youth, he was enabled to study law in Paris through a scholarship. He won admiration for his abilities, but his austerity and dedication isolated him from easy companionship. Returning to his native Arras, he practiced law and gained some reputation. He soon came under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau's theories of democracy and deism, and Robespierre's emphasis on virtue—which in his mind meant civic morality—later earned him the epithet "the Incorruptible."
Robespierre was elected to the States-General of 1789, and his influence in the Jacobin Club grew steadily until he became its leader (see Jacobins). In the National Constituent Assembly (June, 1789–Sept., 1791), he unsuccessfully championed democratic elections and successfully backed the law that made members of the Constituent Assembly ineligible to sit in the Legislative Assembly, which succeeded it.
In the spring of 1792 Robespierre opposed the war proposals of the Girondists, and his opposition made him lose popularity. This was only temporary, however, and he was elected to the insurrectionary Commune of Paris set up on Aug. 10, 1792. As a deputy from Paris in the National Convention, he played an important part in the struggle for power between the Girondists and the Mountain, as the Jacobins in the assembly were known. He demanded the execution of the king and was instrumental in finally purging (May–June, 1793) the Girondists.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.