As Grant took office, Reconstruction issues took precedence. Only a week before Grant's inauguration, Congress proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that the right to vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In his inaugural address, Grant stated that the issue of suffrage was "likely to agitate the public" until settled; "I entertain the hope and express the desire," he declared, that its settlement "may be by ratification of the fifteenth . . . amendment." Grant played a quiet but persistent role in ratification, at one point asking the governor of Nebraska to call a special session of the legislature to speed the process. In almost precisely one year, he could declare that the Fifteenth Amendment was the law of the land, the very law he had sworn to uphold.
On inauguration day, four states—Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas—remained unrepresented in Congress and subject to the Reconstruction Acts. One year after Grant's inauguration, all states of the former Confederacy except one were represented in Congress, and on 24 February 1871, Georgia seated its senators, having complied with congressional Reconstruction legislation and with the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right of blacks to vote. Reconstruction was, in these respects, complete.
By historical consensus, Reconstruction formally ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of the last United States troops from the South by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Outward compliance of white southerners with Reconstruction, grudgingly given and with many reservations, tied the hands of the conservative administration of President Grant. Any effort to maintain the spirit as well as the letter of Reconstruction legislation collided with older and valued concepts of states' rights.
The years of the Grant administration constituted a gradual retreat from Reconstruction, initiated in the South but increasingly tolerated by the North. Grant certainly wanted as rapid as possible an end to the special status of the former Confederacy as a domain of federal intervention. The basic question for him and his countrymen was what price to pay for this peace. From the start, southerners made clear that the road to reunion lay over the rights of their former slaves.
Although the relationship between black votes and Republican majorities in these states was generally understood, Grant spurned any intervention for political advantage; as president, he could intervene only to uphold the law and could officially recognize only clear-cut violations. Aware of this policy, opponents of Reconstruction governments often tried to subvert it through clandestine means, such as the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, which would accomplish the purpose without provoking federal intervention. Using hindsight, critics have argued either that the Grant administration did too much or that it did too little to maintain Reconstruction.
Reconstruction state governments controlled by carpetbaggers (northern whites who went to the South with a mixture of crass and idealistic motives), scalawags (white southerners who supported Reconstruction, again from a mixture of motives), and former slaves possessed varying degrees of integrity. Critics portrayed these state governments as carnivals of corruption, rarely drawing parallels to cases of malfeasance in the North, such as the notorious Tweed Ring in New York City. Promises that Reconstruction governments would be supplanted by honest, competent, and conservative regimes tempted many northerners to ignore the issue of black civil rights.
While the Grant administration erred in intervening too little to uphold Reconstruction legislation, Grant did not ignore violence, intimidation, and disorder in the South. He used enforcement legislation for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and he asked Congress for the legislation ultimately known as the Ku Klux Act (20 April 1871), which enabled him to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and impose martial law in areas in which local officials did not protect the rights of all citizens. Armed with the law, Grant enforced it in parts of South Carolina, sending in troops and initiating prosecutions. Here and elsewhere he recognized opponents of Reconstruction as the same men he had faced in battle, men determined to use force to reverse the results of the war. In upholding Reconstruction, Grant increasingly acted on his own; in fact, the administration proceeded past the point at which it had adequate popular or congressional support. Enforcement declined as the years progressed, as northerners recognized that frustrating any attempt by southern whites to control state governments and to subjugate the black population accomplished no more than buying time and led to efforts to accomplish the same purpose by other means. Any condemnation of the Grant administration for abandoning Reconstruction requires a general condemnation of the nation. As the war years receded, the whites regained control of the South.
Enforcement of Reconstruction was accompanied by extension of amnesty. In May 1872, an administration-favored bill gave amnesty to all but about five hundred former Confederates who had left the United States government to take arms against it. While Johnson's generosity in granting amnesty had infuriated Radicals, the passage of time enabled Grant to enlarge the policy.