The Patriot takes place during the American Revolutionary War, and centers on Benjamin Martin, a fictional character composed of the qualities and experiences of several real Americans who lived at the time. Martin's character transitions awayfrom an initial attitude of pacifism as the effects of the war begin to reach him personally.
In a short prologue, Martin describes his fears of his sins "returning to visit him", accompanied by him locking a tomahawk in a chest; this implies that he has fought, and probably killed, and knows the costs of war firsthand. This greatly informs us about his character, his views, and his public reputation in the next scenes.
After an introduction to Martin's idyllic family life in South Carolina, he goes to Charleston, the capital, after being summoned for a voting session (another indication of his character's esteem in the community). The session is called to vote for or against a levy (tax) in support of the Continental Army (the main military force of the United States, as compared to the irregular militias).
Charleston and the assembly are depicted as being steeply opinionated either for or against support for a revolution. These camps are the Loyalists (ie those loyal to Britain) and the Patriots (those supporting a Revolution). The two sides make some of their points before Martin enters the scene with dialogue; it is clear to the Loyalists that support of the Army is treason, and perhaps a dereliction of their duty to serve the citizens of South Carolina rather than those of a hypothetical American nation. The Patriots counter that an American nation already exists, whether they wish it or not.
Martin counters the Patriots with the claim that tyranny would abound should the Colonies seek independence (in a quote that is taken from a Colonial Loyalist, Mather Byles). Martin argues that the Colonies have been dealt injustices that need to be addressed, but that war is not a way to do it. However, as his points are challenged, he reveals that his deepest concern is for the care of his family, and that because he cannot and will not fight, he will not send others to fight either.
Ultimately Martin's serve only to isolate him, the vote passes the levy, and South Carolina joins the war. Far from being a patriot at the onset of the film, Martin comes across as strongly principled but unwilling to act, and only a shadow of the man that his public reputation described.