The History of American Lottery


    Lottery is the process of drawing lots to determine ownership or other rights. The practice is attested to in ancient documents, including the Bible, and was a popular pastime during the Roman Saturnalia. The modern lottery is a government-run game in which players purchase tickets for the chance to win cash or goods. The winners are determined by chance and the odds of winning a prize are typically one in several million. State-run lotteries are legal in the United States and Canada. Private companies also operate lotteries in other countries. In the United States, the profits from state lotteries are used to fund public programs.

    The first state-sponsored lotteries were organized in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. The word “lottery” is probably a variant of the Dutch phrase for drawing lots, lotinge, with a calque on Middle French loterie (which has a much older origin). In the 17th century, lottery play became popular in colonial America, which was defined politically by its aversion to taxes. The colonies used lotteries to finance everything from schools to roads, and the Continental Congress hoped to use one to pay for the Revolutionary War.

    Early American lotteries were often tangled up with the slave trade. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion. But by the nineteen-sixties, as population growth and inflation strained state coffers, interest in gambling had surged and, Cohen argues, many voters became convinced that lotteries were a good way to avoid raising taxes or cutting services.

    In the early nineteen-sixties, New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery of the modern era, and thirteen more followed suit. Many critics objected to the morality of funding public services through gambling and to the amount of money that states stood to gain, but these concerns were largely ignored.

    By the late twentieth century, the growing costs of education and social services made it impossible for states to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting programs. The nineteen-seventies saw a tax revolt, culminating in California’s Proposition 13, and federal money began to flow into state coffers less frequently.

    In the early twenty-first century, with a growing sense of entitlement and insecurity, interest in the lottery has again increased. But a number of people have been concerned that the games are addictive, and that lottery profits are squandered on illusory prizes that will only make some families poorer. Others have questioned whether the industry should be considered a monopoly and should face more regulation. And still others have argued that the marketing tactics of lottery companies are not dissimilar to those employed by tobacco or video-game manufacturers. Despite these concerns, the lottery continues to be a popular form of gambling. As long as people keep buying tickets, governments will continue to run lotteries.