Andrew Jackson, President of the United States
We’ll forgive the man for being prone to duel people who he disagreed with (he fought in at least three well-publicized duels to the death). However, Andrew Jackson is perhaps the man most responsible for the most corruption in the 19th century. Now, that’s an inflammatory statement to be sure. However, the reason why it might be true is that Jackson is seemingly responsible for the institution of the “spoils system” wherein government appointments were made not for the merits of the appointee, but for what that person had done for the President.
Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson, the positions surrounding the president were chosen in a fairly reasonable manner, though as you might expect there was corruption and patronage. Once Jackson was elected, however, anyone who had done anything to get him elected was allowed into the White House to beg for a position in the administration. So much so that he is often quoted as saying that he got very little work done in the first few weeks of his presidency because the comers and goers were keeping him too busy.
What this amounted to was almost a constant turnover in the government positions appointed by President Jackson. At least two times during his presidency, Jackson fired his entire cabinet over widespread controversies.
The interesting thing is, that Jackson actually pushed through several initiatives to help remove corruption from the federal government. However, his idea to use political appointments to scrub away corruption only further entrenched the idea of patronage, so much so that it started to be called the “Spoils system”, i.e. “To the winner goes the spoils.”
Most historians will tell you that Jackson’s institutionalization of patronage marked the beginning of a new area of public corruption. The spoils system actually got worse once Jackson left office. It wasn’t uncommon for a person to buy their way into a post, and then use their influence to change policy to suit their own business interests.
It wouldn’t be until the mid-1880s when the US Congress passed the Pendleton act that the government would finally be a merit-based system (or at least, it would be in theory). Andrew Jackson gets a lot of the credit for starting this era off, however. Much of the corruption that followed was the direct result of Spoils.