Based on the historical novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, politics keep a woman from the man she loves while she marries two others and is devoted to Andrew Jackson.
In 1823 John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) of Virginia argues against Daniel Webster (Sidney Toler) in the United States Senate. Navy Lt. Bow Timberlake (Robert Taylor) and Sunderland (Louis Calhern) meet Peggy O'Neal (Joan Crawford), who argues for the union against Randolph. Timberlake calls Peggy a tavern girl, and Randolph slaps him. Rowdy Dow (James Stewart) and Timberlake woo Peggy. Senator Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) arrives with his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi), and Peggy serves him breakfast. Timberlake kisses Peggy. She goes to Randolph's room at night to say she loves him; but he says she is too young. Timberlake and Peggy go on a hay-ride and "bundle" next to each other during a storm. Randolph tells Peggy to marry Timberlake, and she does. Jackson goes to their bedroom with pistols but learns they are married. Timberlake goes to sea and is killed.
Five years later Jackson runs for President, and women gossip about his wife Rachel because her divorce was not final when they first married. Senator John Eaton (Franchot Tone) tells Peggy he is in love, and Randolph returns from Russia. On election day a crowd jeers Rachel, and Jackson climbs down to fight. Webster announces Jackson's election. Rachel tells Peggy that she is dying and that they will hate her too; she asks her to help her husband. After Rachel's death Peggy consoles Jackson with what Rachel said. He says gossip killed his wife. Jackson enforces the tariff law in resisting South Carolina. Randolph argues and threatens secession. Jackson speaks to the Senate against civil war and for union.
Peggy goes to a party with Eaton. Women say she made Jackson send Sarah back to Tennessee. A drunk Rowdy defends Peggy's honor. Peggy dances with Rowdy a dance she promised to Randolph, who leaves. Peggy goes to Randolph's room, and he says he had bitter years apart from her and kisses her. Peggy tells Jackson she is going to marry Randolph; but he objects to Randolph's views, feeling she is deserting him. Peggy loves Randolph and asks him to change; but he won't change his convictions, and she won't either. Peggy goes on a boat with Jackson, Eaton, and Van Buren; but the rest of the cabinet wouldn't come with a "hussy." Jackson suggests she marry Eaton, and she does. Sunderland tells Randolph his men are ready to revolt, and Randolph tells him to get out. Then Randolph is shot. Rowdy takes Peggy to Randolph, who says he always loved her. Sunderland gets in the coach with Peggy and Rowdy, threatening scandal; but Rowdy throws him out. Women and his cabinet complain to Jackson about Peggy. Eaton hits Secretary Ingham. Jackson calls in Peggy and fires his cabinet. Privately Jackson tells Peggy he lied for her, because their lies were worse. She asks to leave, and he sends Eaton to Spain. In the final scene Peggy and Eaton sail.
Historians have said that the Eaton scandal divided Calhoun and Van Buren and so changed history. This version shows Peggy less scandalous than she apparently was, though Jackson did defend her chastity. The real Timberlake defrauded the government (They said, to pay for Peggy's extravagances.) and probably committed suicide. This drama shows how politically motivated gossip can affect people's lives.