Andrew Jackson was America's worst "great" president

Besides the destruction of his rivals and the accumulation of personal power, it’s hard to pin down Jackon’s guiding principles. Was he a strict constructionist or a federal-power expansionist? He set himself to destroy the Second Bank of the United States in a Jeffersonian rage. And he vetoed development projects like the Maysville Road. But he also was fearsome in defending the prerogative of the federal government in tariff policy. When South Carolina began threatening secession, Jackson told a South Carolinian, “If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

Proponents of Jackson claim he broke up some networks of privilege among his rivals. That may be true — but it also entrenched amateurism in civil service and a new system of patronage politics (with their own unearned privileges) which would define American government for several generations. On the night of his inauguration, office-seekers so crowded the White House that the party devolved into a near riot. Jackson’s purge of federal office-holders relied on a campaign of trumped-up and false charges against incumbents, especially in the Northeast where Jackson tried to build a base of political loyalty. This marauding style of patronage machine-building would live on for a century, most notably in the squalor of Kansas’ Pendergast machine and New York’s Tammany Hall.