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In a small Southern town, Hank Martin, a charming, self-educated, backwoods peddler, sees Verity Wade, the new, college-educated schoolteacher and is instantly smitten. He soon convinces her to marry him, and after their wedding, takes her to live in a tiny, broken-down shack on the estate of wealthy lawyer Jules Bolduc. With the help of friendly sharecroppers, Hank and Verity transform the shack into a comfortable cottage. Jules, who is a good friend of Hank, invites them to eat their wedding dinner at the big house, but when Hank finds that Jules's godfather, cotton gin owner Robert J. Castleberry, is also present, he accuses Castleberry of cheating the cotton farmers. Later, Verity accompanies Hank on a selling trip in swamp country, where she is nearly killed by the jealous Flamingo, a beautiful young woman who has been in love with Hank since she was a child. Flamingo leaves home to work in the city and pursues Hank, who, in spite of his love for Verity, engages in a long-standing affair with her when he is in town. Meanwhile, Hank organizes the cotton farmers and with them, publicly proves that Castleberry gin employees have been using false weights. However, when a Castleberry man pulls out a gun, Jeb Brown, one of Hank's friends, shoots him in self-defense and is arrested. When Jeb is denied bail and his trial delayed, Hank tries to confront Castleberry in his office, but by chance encounters Guy Polli, a gangster with political influence, who has been trying to buy out Castleberry. Recognizing Hank's political ambitions, Guy explains that the trial has been postponed to keep the facts concerning Castleberry's alleged short-weighing out of the newspapers and offers to use his influence to get the trial scheduled. During the trial, Guy says, these facts would be discussed and the newspapers would be able to report the fraud without fear of a lawsuit. On the day of Jeb's trial, one of Castleberry's employees, Mr. Beach, has gunmen shoot Jeb through the jail window. Instead of canceling the trial, Hank convinces Jeb, who has only hours to live, to go to the courtroom. Although Jeb dies during the trial, Hank grandstands to get the facts about the short-weighing across to the press and convinces the jury to proclaim Jeb's innocence posthumously. The resulting publicity gains grassroots support for Hank as a gubernatorial candidate, while Castleberry is ruined and forced to sell out to Guy, who remains anonymous. The day before the election, a major rainstorm hits the state, threatening to prevent Hank's enthusiastic rural supporters from getting to the polls. With twelve hours left before polls open, Hank borrows Jules's car and drives to the city to visit Guy, who explains to him that Beach, not Castleberry, has been cheating the farmers and had Jeb killed. Guy offers Hank the votes in precincts he controls if Hank will sign an affidavit giving Beach an alibi for the time Jeb was shot and Hank agrees. On election day, the incumbent governor Snowden seems to be winning, but in the final count, Snowden and Hank are tied, and the state assembly prepares to decide the victor. In a radio program broadcast from his headquarters, Hank, expecting the assembly to back Snowden, urges his own supporters to mob the state capitol with guns and force the assembly to adhere to the people's will. Aghast when she foresees "the lynching of the whole state," Verity runs to Jules for help, although she is weak from the recent birth of Hank's child. Jules returns with her and announces to the people that Beach was arrested that morning for the murder of Jeb, but walked free because of an affidavit providing him an alibi that was signed by Hank. Jeb's distraught widow, Jennie, threatens to shoot Jules for lying, but Verity intervenes, saying that Hank's affidavit is false, as she was with Hank during the time he claims to have been with Beach. Although he tries to explain the political reality he has had to accept, Hank is forced to admit that he sold out and betrayed Jeb. Jennie shoots him in front of the crowd, and wounded, but unwilling to give up, Hank falls as he shouts promises to lead the people to glory. Before dying, Hank admits to the grieving Verity that "they found me out."