In Virginia in the 1790s, Lewis Rand breaks from the tobacco planter life his father had intended for him to become a lawyer. He rises quickly in his field, and aided by his friend Thomas Jefferson, his political future in the Democratic-Republican party seems assured. He and Jacqueline Churchill fall in love and marry, much to the consternation of her Federalist family, and especially so to Ludwell Cary, who had hoped to marry her himself.
Rand falls under the spell of Aaron Burr and enlists in the conspiracy to establish an empire in the West. Before he takes the final step and ruins not only his own life but Jacqueline’s as well, Cary challenges him to a duel — the goal being to delay him long enough that the scheme unravels before Rand becomes too involved, and that’s just what happens.
Rand blames his foiled ambitions on Cary, and in a blind rage, kills him. There’s nothing that links Rand to the crime, and indeed he manages to establish a fairly convincing alibi. He escapes justice for several months, but Jacqueline’s pressing and his own conscious eventually lead to Rand giving himself up.