The History of American Lottery


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. People spent over $100 billion on tickets in 2021. States promote the games as a way to raise revenue without burdening working class and middle class voters with higher taxes. But just how meaningful that revenue is and whether the trade-offs to citizens who lose money are worth it merits scrutiny.

In the early days of America, lotteries played a significant role in both private and public ventures. The foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities was financed by lotteries, as were the construction of canals and bridges in the colonies. Lotteries also helped finance colonial wars and a variety of local militia ventures.

Lotteries were a common feature of the early American economy, and were frequently tangled up with slavery. George Washington managed a lottery in Virginia that included human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey purchased his freedom in a South Carolina lottery. But despite the many social and ethical concerns, in general the colonists were quite fond of lotteries.

The word “lottery” derives from the Middle Dutch noun lot, meaning a drawing or casting of lots; it was originally used to refer to a method of allocating goods or services. During the late 16th century, it began to be used in a more general sense, as a synonym for chance or fortune. Lotteries became increasingly popular in the United States during the 1740s and played an important part in the settling of the colonies, despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling.

Among the earliest state lotteries were the Virginia and Maryland lotteries, which raised funds for public works projects and local militias. Lotteries grew even more popular in the United States during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Many of the American colonies adopted lotteries as a way to finance private enterprise and the development of their local economies. In addition, they subsidized religious and charitable activities, and sometimes were instrumental in raising funds for local militias.

Today’s lotteries are much more complex, with multiple prize levels and a variety of game options, including scratch-offs, draw games, and multistate games like Powerball and Mega Millions. Unlike the simple, one-off games in colonial times, modern lotteries are designed to be addictive. Everything about them, from advertising campaigns to the math behind the games themselves, is intended to keep players hooked. It is no different than how tobacco or video-game companies lure players in.

In a society in which Americans feel less and less secure, the lottery seems to promise them a path to wealth that does not require risk, hard work, or long hours. The improbable dream of winning the jackpot becomes an obsession that can undermine family stability and economic security. It can even eat away at people’s savings.

The popularity of the lottery coincided with a dramatic decline in financial security for working-class and middle-class Americans. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies and accelerating during the nineteen-eighties, income gaps widened, job security eroded, pensions and health care costs rose, and America’s long-standing national promise that education and hard work would make people better off than their parents was revealed to be more myth than reality.