Writing Meriwether: The Jefferson Question

Written by carlos on April 20th, 2010

Thomas Jefferson--pimped out in fur!

One of my first tasks when I signed on to Meriwether was to begin fleshing out how we would portray Jefferson. I humbly submit to you that there are few prospects capable of instilling more terror in the American writer than to try to create an historically-accurate yet fictional version of our third president. I mean, he slept with his slaves. Where do you go from there?

Less facetiously, Jefferson continues to be among the most polarizing of the Founding Fathers, as the Texas Board of Education demonstrated by removing him from a list of “great world political thinkers” of the 18th and 19th century. But it’s not only Ultraconservatives who find him a problematic figure: he felt that African Americans were racially inferior to whites, while believing that Native Americans were primitive but “redeemable”–that they could be assimilated into American/European cultures. And Sally Hemings was probably his long-time consort, as well as his slave. He was a prisoner of his time in terms of his worldview: as we all are, of course. If you haven’t yet shuddered at how history will look back on us, start now. It won’t be pretty.

Still, we want our players to be immersed in the zeitgeist of the time while simultaneously enough outside of it to analyze and critique the time the way a historian would. We want our players to think like historians, in other words. How, then, should we portray Jefferson, the architect of the Corps of Discovery’s mission?

Since Jefferson’s role in the game is relatively minor–he only really appears in the first episode of the game, we decided to emphasize his far-ranging imagination, his wit, and his scientific bent–all undeniable facets of his character, no matter what your political bent may be. His interactions with Lewis are at first playful–the two were great friends, Jefferson serving as perhaps the most important father figure in Lewis’s life–and later switch to emphasize the spirit of adventure and the desire to explore North America that both share. Game-wise, we had time to incorporate little else in the dialogue, but the player will be able to learn a great deal more about Jefferson through other means: Jefferson’s servants lend insight about his character; some of the curiosities that he has collected and brought to the President’s House (that’s the name of the White House before it was the White House) are almost Steampunk; and, most directly, the game will give, as part of the “wunderkammer” of factual information we’ll be providing players, a biography of America’s third president.

And for the record, the Meriwether team is a big fan of Jefferson. For all his flaws and human weaknesses, he remains perhaps the single most visionary of all the visionary men who made America.


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