Based on the novel The Tree of Liberty by Elizabeth Page, a hard worker marries an aristocratic woman in Virginia, and their family is caught up in the American revolution that divides their family from her brother.
In Albemarle County in Virginia the backwoodsman Reuben rides up to a cabin, and the Howards welcome their uncle. While he eats, James Howard tells him he has trouble with taxes. Reuben tells him of land in Ohio that is free of quitrents for fifteen years where the English are fighting the French. James decides to go, but his son Matt is too young. James insists he stay home because of school.
In the schoolroom Matt tells the other children about his father’s venture. The teacher comes in and asks Matt to read and translate some Latin. The teacher sees a paper about the war in Ohio, and he punishes Matt with swats. Matt rebels and says he is meant to be free. Col. Jefferson comes in and leaves with Matt and his son Tom.
In his house Col. Jefferson tells Matt how Braddock and the British defeated and killed most of the Virginians. All the men from Albemarle were killed. Matt cries and says he will go home. Col. Jefferson sends a slave with him to help with the work.
Twelve years later in 1767 in Williamsburg the backwoodsman Matt Howard (Cary Grant) comes in to say goodbye to Tom Jefferson (Richard Carlson). Matt says he sold his farm and is going to Ohio. Tom orders a bath for him in his room. Matt sold his farm for less than £4. Tom disposes of Matt’s clothes and tells Matt he should stay in Williamsburg to find work. Matt has to dress in finer clothes. Tom introduces him to his friends, including Roger Peyton (Alan Marshal). They laugh at his small fortune. Tom says Matt surveys, and Roger agrees to help him find some work.
Later while the gentlemen sing, Tom introduces drunk Matt to Fleetwood Peyton (Cedric Hardwicke).
At dinner Fleetwood scolds Roger. The house slave says Matt is there. Jane Peyton (Martha Scott) finds Matt measuring the large room. Fleetwood comes in and introduces Jane. Fleetwood offers Matt work while he is paying attention to Jane.
On wild land Matt is surveying, and Jane rides up. Matt asks about her eyes, and she asks if he likes the tidewater district. He tells her about Albemarle and says he hoed tobacco. She is surprised to learn that he labors in the field and leaves abruptly.
Jane tells Fleetwood that Matt is an impostor. Jefferson explains about Matt, but Jane is still embarrassed. Fleetwood asks Tom to tell Matt he is not to come there anymore. Tom leaves, and Roger suggests they let Matt finish his work.
At a dance in the Governor’s palace Matt is with Tom and is complimented on his surveying. Matt resents the Peytons, and Fleetwood with Jane snubs him. Matt asks to dance with Jane, and she goes to the garden with him. She tells him his attentions are unpleasant and warns him that her brother was about to call him out. Matt indicates he likes her, but she seems to reject him. He talks about marriage, takes her in his arms, and kisses her. She runs to Fleetwood.
Tom asks Matt how he can know her so well in so few meetings. Tom suggests he could get a thousand acres for a plantation for Jane. Fleetwood knocks and comes in and offers Matt surveying work in Ohio. Matt wonders what his motive is and says he is not going to Ohio yet. He asks Fleetwood for his sister’s hand in marriage. Fleetwood is shocked, but Matt says he can get a thousand acres in the Shenandoah Valley. Matt says he will go and come back with it.
Roger tells Fleetwood that Matt is coming over that night and has the land. Fleetwood advises Jane to reject him. Jane says she will give him her answer. Matt is showed in and sees Fleetwood there too. Matt is in buckskin and kneels before Jane. He proposes that she join him in Shenandoah, and he asks her to listen to her heart. She says he is strange but agrees to go with him. She asks Matt to take her to the garden.
Jane is in her wedding dress, and Fleetwood comes in. He gives her the Peyton necklace because he will never marry. He says she is entering a different life. He tells her she must place honor first. She says Matt has good qualities and accepts the gift. The wedding is held in the Peytons’ house.
Matt drives Jane and a woman slave in a wagon to the Shenandoah Valley. Several men ride up firing guns and hand Matt a bottle of liquor. He greets his friends happily and takes a drink. They go to their Albemarle home, and Jane sees it is a primitive cabin. They go in and are welcomed by Tom Norton (Irving Bacon) and Mrs. Betsy Norton (Anne Revere). They eat at a big table, and Jane comes in to join them. They dance the Virginia reel. Later the Nortons leave, and Matt comes in and finds Jane lying on a bed. Matt explains they were celebrating. He tells her he loves her. He picks her up and carries her into the living room. He says it is only the kitchen of a fine plantation. He says what he will build. She suggests maple trees because it is Albemarle. They embrace and kiss.
Matt works chopping down trees while Jane plants a garden. He plows, and she spins cloth.
Time has passed, and a large house has been built. Neighbors do not get along with Jane and leave. Matt comes in and says he is working on the smokehouse. A boy comes in and asks Matt to help his pappy with a big rock. Jane asks him to send a slave. Matt says that is not the custom of the country. She says it is not proper for the master of a plantation to work like that. They quarrel about it, and he goes out. She gets out her necklace and then goes out to find Matt. She collapses in the meadow, and Matt carries her.
At night Matt while waiting with others is worried she will die. He hears the baby and goes into her. She says he has a son, and Mrs. Norton hands him the baby. He says he looks like a Peyton. Matt discovers that one foot is deformed. He decides to name him Peyton.
Fleetwood and Roger hear their Aunt Clarissa read a letter about the son who is crippled like Fleetwood.
Matt is working and tells young Peyton to go back to the house. Tom is welcomed by Jane who asks about Elm Hill. Tom meets Peyton and a younger boy and girl. Matt comes in and says the other boy’s name is James. Tom says he has become a lawyer. A slave boy takes off Matt’s boots. Matt welcomes three backwoodsmen for a visit. Tom is amazed at what they have done there. Matt says they want him to run for a seat in the House of Burgesses. Matt has ideas about how their area could be fixed up. Tom urges him to accept the seat. Jane comes in and says the men are talking about smuggling. She asks if they should be turned over to the law. Matt says he is not an informer. She disagrees and says she will keep to her rooms. Tom says Matt is a fool because she has respect for the law. Tom suggests he could dance at the Governor’s ball. Matt goes to Jane and says they should not quarrel. He invites her to go to Williamsburg because he will be a burgess. She says they can stay at Elm Hill.
Fleetwood and others welcome the Howards. Fleetwood offers to guide him in the legislature. Matt says they need bridges and better roads. He is opposed to the Stamp Act tax. Roger says it already passed. Matt is angry and asks what they will do about it. Fleetwood says resolutions are absurd.
Tom greets them as they get out of the carriage. In the House they debate the resolutions. Patrick Henry argues against the tax, but Fleetwood rises in opposition. Matt interrupts and is told to sit down. Henry makes another speech, crying out, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Fleetwood reminds Matt that the Stamp Act was repealed, but Matt is concerned about the Declaratory Act. They are returning to Albemarle, and Jane says goodbye to her brothers.
In 1769 troops are stationed in Boston. In March 1770 men throw rocks at the British soldiers.
Matt is packing, and Jane pleads with him not to leave for a political quarrel. He says they shot men in Boston. She wants Albemarle to have order and dignity. He says things must be put right. He promises he will back soon. She asks him to think of her and the children at least once a day. He rides off.
More taxes are imposed on the colonies. The Virginia House forms a committee of correspondence to form a united front with the other colonies. The Governor comes in and dissolves the House of Burgesses.
The committee meets in Raleigh Tavern. An armed messenger rides and passes messages to other riders. In Boston men dressed as Indians throw tea into the sea.
Tom asks Matt what he has heard from Jane. Matt says he invited Jane to come there. A messenger tells them about 300 chests of tea being dumped in the sea.
Jane is told by two men that Indians are rising up, and she must find safety. He offers to take her and the children to Williamsburg.
Matt sees that they have arrived and greets them happily, except he ignores Peyton.
Messengers report the repression in Massachusetts. The colonies are sending delegates to Philadelphia. Massachusetts appoints a committee of public safety. Patrick Henry speaks and shouts, “Give me liberty of give me death!” People cheer. Jane tells Matt she is a Virginian too. Jane takes the boys home.
Men march with torches. Matt comes home and tells Jane how exciting it was. He says Roger is riding north, and he is going with him. He wants her and the children to go to Philadelphia with him. She says she will not go with him and asks him to go back to Albemarle. She objects to his violence and the war. He is going north, and she refuses to go with him. He asks if she wants to separate from him. She says she will take the children to Elm Hill. He objects to her brother. She says he drove her son Peyton away from him. He says nothing and walks out. She cries.
Matt is a captain in the revolutionary army and talks with Tom in Philadelphia. Tom says they need a new system. Tom asks about Jane, and Matt asks him to talk to his children.
Battles are fought, and Roger is wounded.
Fleetwood and two men call on Jefferson and says he has been summoned to court because of a bill. He does not want to sell land and asks for Tom’s help. Tom says it is the law. Fleetwood refuses to help with the war and blames Jefferson for the danger to Virginia. Tom says boys are fighting.
Outside James Howard asks Jefferson for news about his father. Tom says he has not seen him for several years. Tom asks James to help him.
At the dinner table Fleetwood rails about Jefferson and asks what happened to Peyton, who comes in late. Fleetwood questions him, and Peyton defends Jefferson. Fleetwood orders Peyton to leave his house, and James leaves with him. Peyton and James decide to join the army. Jane tries to get them to go to Albemarle with her to no avail.
In winter quarters Matt brings in two potatoes at a high price and shares them with Captain Jabez Allen (Paul Kelly). They hear a knock, and James and Peyton come in. Matt introduces his sons to Allen. They say they came to join the army. Matt and Allen have no boots. Peyton tells them they have one rabbit left, and Matt rushes out and gets it. They plan to stew it so the smell will not attract others. As they eat, Matt relates what he said to Col. Hamilton. Peyton is a dispatch rider for General Washington.
British officers drink and thank Jane for their hospitality. They leave, and she objects to what Fleetwood said to them. He blames Jefferson and wants to see him and Matt hanged. Jane quarrels with him and asks where her sons are.
In the camp Matt and Allen hear another deserter being shot. James tells Peyton he would like to desert and go back to Elm Hill. Matt overhears him as Peyton talks him out of leaving. James accuses Peyton of sounding like Jefferson. Matt tells Peyton that he heard him talking and asks if he believes what he was saying. Peyton says he believes in liberty like his father. Matt says he did not realize he felt that way.
Peyton is leaving to take a message to Lafayette and cannot wait for what Matt wants to tell him.
Matt marches with soldiers toward Williamsburg. Peyton is chased by British soldiers on horses. He is shot off his horse.
Matt tells Allen how blind he was. They get up to march again. General Washington and the troops are welcomed in Williamsburg. Matt forces his way in to speak to Washington, and he asks if Peyton got through. He learns that he was wounded and was taken to his home. Matt goes to Elm Hill and hugs his daughter Mary. He sees Jane and asks for Peyton. Matt asks if he is hurt bad. Peyton says it is only his arm. James says he is a hero because he helped other dispatch riders get through. They tell him that Cornwallis is being trapped at Yorktown. Mary and Fleetwood ask Matt to stay. He offers him wine made by Jane. Fleetwood says his house is stripped and broken down. Jane restrains her brother’s contempt and persuades him to withdraw. Jane says she must attend to an ill slave, and Matt follows her outside. He tells her that Peyton is a fine lad who does not know how to hate. He says it is like they are meeting for the first time. They walk holding hands, and she asks if the war will be over soon. He says they fought so that men could be free, as Jefferson said.
This historical drama depicts how social and political conflicts affected family relations during the American revolution. The father realizes that his prejudice against his oldest son prevented him from understanding his true values.