The History of the Lottery


The lottery is the most common way states raise money to pay for everything from schools to pensions. It is a form of hidden tax that has a long history in human society—as evidenced by Moses’ instructions to draw lots for land and slaves, a practice adopted by the Romans and later by European colonists in America. During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to fund cannons to defend Philadelphia, and Alexander Hamilton grasped that lotteries work by the simple rule that everyone “will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of a considerable gain.”

The word comes from the Latin loteria or legere, which translates as the drawing of lots; making decisions and determining fates through the casting of lots has a long record in history—the Bible alone contains several examples, from deciding who gets the garments of Christ after his Crucifixion to choosing the next king of Israel. In more modern times, the lottery was first used in the United States to raise money for public works in the 1700s. It then spread across the country, even despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

Early lotteries in the colonies were often tangled up with slavery, sometimes in unpredictable ways. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion in the state. And, as a recent HuffPost story describes, the lottery can be a surprisingly lucrative enterprise. In Michigan, for example, one couple in their 60s made $27 million over nine years by bulk-buying tickets in thousands at a time, figuring out how to maximize their odds of winning.

Lotteries are also a popular way to fund political campaigns, but in the last few decades these campaigns have become more and more desperate as states scrambled for budgetary solutions that would not jeopardize the social-safety net. As a result, legalization advocates stopped selling the lottery as a silver bullet and began to frame it as a way to cover a single line item—typically education but occasionally elder care or parks or aid for veterans.

But these narrower arguments didn’t work, because they made the case that a lottery was just another way to subsidize gambling. Instead, advocates had to shift the argument to a different narrative—one that focused on a specific government service that voters liked and could identify with. This strategy, in turn, changed how people viewed the lottery. It became not just another form of gambling, but a means of enhancing a beloved, if shady, service.

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