Denby, Edwin, 1870-1929

Alternative names
Birth 1870-02-18
Death 1929-02-08

Biographical notes:

Edwin Denby (February 18, 1870 - February 8, 1929) was an American lawyer and politician who served as Secretary of the Navy in the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 to 1924. He also played a notable role in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal which took place during the Harding presidency.

From the description of Letter, November 22, 1923. (Naval War College). WorldCat record id: 18168841

U.S. Congressman, 1905-1911; and U.S. Secretary of the Navy, 1921-1924.

From the description of Edwin Denby papers, 1845-1846 and 1880-1929. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34421773

Detroit lawyer, secretary of the navy during the Harding administration, U.S. congressman (1905-1911).

From the description of Correspondence and papers of Edwin Denby, 1907-1925. (Detroit Public Library). WorldCat record id: 55804614

Edwin Denby was born on February 18, 1870 in Evansville, Indiana to Charles and Martha (Fitch) Denby. In 1885 he moved to China with his father, who had been appointed minister for the United States. Denby lived there for ten years, where he was employed in the Chinese imperial maritime customs service from1887 to 1894. Upon return to America, Denby enrolled in the Law School at the University of Michigan, receiving his L.L.B. in 1896.

Denby volunteered for service in the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War, serving as a gunner's mate aboard the Yosemite . He then returned to Detroit to practice law. Denby was elected as a Republican Representative to the Michigan legislature in 1903, and in 1905 was elected to represent Michigan's 1st District in the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1905 to 1911. After he lost the election in 1910 to Democrat Frank E. Doremus, Denby returned to his law practice in Detroit. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps. Denby retired in 1919 with the rank of Major (United States). He was then selected by President Warren G. Harding to be Secretary of the Navy, in which capacity he served from 1921 to 1924.

Denby is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Teapot Dome oil reserve scandal, which led to his resignation as Secretary of the Navy. In 1921, by executive order of the President, control of naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and at Elk Hills, Calif., was transferred from the Navy Dept. to the Dept. of the Interior. In 1922, Albert B. Fall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, leased, without competitive bidding, the Teapot Dome fields to Harry F. Sinclair, an oil operator, and the field at Elk Hills, Calif., to Edward L. Doheny. These transactions became (1922--23) the subject of a Senate investigation conducted by Sen. Thomas J. Walsh. Through the course of the investigation, it was found that Donehy had loaned or given large amounts of money to Fall, presumably in payment for the lucrative oil reserve leases. Fall was eventually indicted for conspiracy and for accepting bribes, and convicted of the latter charge (he was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $100,000).

Denby was not seriously charged, and was determined to have taken no significant part in the negotiations. A quote from The New York Tribune illustrates the public perception of Denby's involvement in the affair: "Stupidity is the high crime and misdemeanor which the Senate accuses Mr. Denby, and the only one." (Feb. 12, 1924). A senate vote on February 11, 1924 requested President Coolidge (Harding had died by this time) to dismiss Denby from his cabinet. Coolidge declined to dismiss Denby, who still insisted that the leases of the oil reserves were both legal and expedient. Nevertheless, Denby resigned his post on February 18, 1924, and in March returned once again to Detroit to practice law. He died there a few weeks before his 59th birthday.

Detroit's Denby High School is named in his honor, as is the Denby Center for Children and Family Services, which the Salvation Army opened in Detroit in 1930 to provide housing and treatment for abused and neglected children.

From the guide to the Edwin Denby papers, 1845-1846, 1880-1927, (Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)


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  • Airplanes
  • Street railroads--Michigan--Mount Clemens
  • Petroleum industry and trade
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