- The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky by Randolph Paul Runyon
The United States, it is often said, is a nation of immigrants. The ingredients in the melting pot of U.S. society have been added over time and have each had a particular impact on the nation's development. Such was the case with the French immigrants to the United States in the first wave of immigration after the American Revolution. Their stories have a familiar ring to them. Fleeing with their families from the political and social turmoil enveloping their homelands, they arrived in the United States, where they were compelled to adapt their worldviews to a new environment. Some thrived in this new world, while others were overwhelmed by it. This immigration story is encapsulated by the Mentelles [End Page 440] of Kentucky, the subject of a new book by Randolph Paul Runyon published by the University Press of Kentucky.
Runyon, professor emeritus at Miami University, has focused his career on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American cultural history. His resume includes books on poet-authors Robert Penn Warren and Raymond Carver, abolitionist Delia Webster, and French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. In this new work, Runyon uses the recently digitized papers of Constance de Salm, as well as several depositories in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, to examine in detail the lives of Augustus Waldemar and Charlotte Victoire Mentelle. Particularly, he focuses on their associations with Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay, claiming early on that his sole purpose in writing the book "is to provide as full an answer as we are likely to have to the question, who was this woman who was such an important figure in her [Mary Todd Lincoln's] life?" (p. 2).
In chronicling their lives, Runyon is careful not to paint the Mentelles in a hagiographic light—a trap easy to fall into given that he is a descendant of their daughter Lucretia. Their association with the famous figures of American history, he claims, did not make them any more deferential to them—their private letters reveal much disdain for their American neighbors—and the connections are not nearly as fascinating as the Mentelles' own story of immigration to and survival in America. Far from fleeing revolutionary France, as the Mentelles claimed, the true reason for their immigration originated with their strained relationships with their parents, Runyon writes, as well as their fostering a child out of wedlock—facts that would have shocked their Kentucky neighbors. Waldemar, unable to devote himself to a trade or profession, was pressured by his parents to leave France for America but drifted about for years before arriving in the early 1790s at the French community of Gallipolis in Ohio. Charlotte joined him there a few years later. From there, they migrated to Kentucky, eventually landing in Lexington, where Waldemar experienced a tumultuous professional career, while Charlotte's French boarding school attracted the attention of the well-to-do of Lexington society.
Runyon's work is an excellent social history in that it studies the impact of ordinary people on otherwise extraordinary ones. As one reads this book, the question naturally arises, would we know about the Mentelles save for the important men and women whose lives they touched? Perhaps not, but that is beside the point. By stressing the Mentelles' importance to their cultural educations, Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay made sure that historians would know the names of Waldemar and Charlotte Mentelle.