You have probably heard stories about the four presidential assassinations, especially involving presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. You know the tale of how Lincoln was shot while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. You know Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. But how did the assassinations change American politics? How did the deaths impact America? Each assassination altered the United States in significant ways.

Lincoln’s assassination changed the Reconstruction era

As the first presidential assassination, President Abraham Lincoln’s death devastated America. He was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. His assassination was part of a larger plot to crumble the federal government during the Civil War. Andrew Johnson assumed office, but American politics greatly altered under the new presidency.

Johnson, a former slave owner in Tennessee, allowed Southern states to determine the rights of former slaves. This changed Lincoln’s original plans for the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Johnson’s weak Reconstruction policies brought outbreaks of violence, including the Memphis riots of 1866 and the famous New Orleans riot of the same year. If Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated, would things have been different?

James Garfield: the forgotten assassination

You probably forgot President James Garfield was also assassinated. He was shot twice on July 2, 1881 – first in his arm and then in his back – as he entered the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. He was only president for four months when the former Ohio congressman was shot by an unsuccessful lawyer and preacher, Charles Guiteau. While Garfield initially survived the gunshot wound, he died two months later due to a severe infection from the wound.

Months prior to Garfield’s presidential victory, Guiteau wrote a speech for Garfield. The speech was greatly ignored, but Guiteau believed the speech led to Garfield’s triumph, leading him to shoot the president. Following the assassination, Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur, signed the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Act, which established that federal jobs should be awarded on merit rather than political patronage. If Garfield hadn’t hired Guiteau, a public office seeker, would he have survived his presidency?

William McKinley started the Secret Service

It might be hard to believe, but the Secret Service wasn’t always instated. On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shaking hands at a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot twice in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. McKinley died eight days later, but it didn’t take long for the Treasury Department to think of a possible solution to prevent future assassinations.

This assassination resulted in the creation of the Secret Service, a branch of the Treasury Department to become the president’s dedicated, permanent security. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, became the first modern president with the best protection. Unfortunately, though, the Secret Service couldn’t prevent every assassination.

John F. Kennedy brought forward the civil rights era

Perhaps the most famous assassination, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Two shots killed Kennedy by gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. The country was devastated by the loss of their president, but they also wondered what Kennedy would have accomplished during the rest of his presidency, including civil rights activism.

Before his assassination, Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation that would outlaw any discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. Considered controversial, the legislation was stalled by Congress, but it was brought back to national attention during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. Noticing the country’s outcry over Kennedy’s death, Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, eventually ending racial segregation. But here’s the question on everyone’s mind: What else would Kennedy have accomplished if his presidency wasn’t cut short on that fateful November day?