The History of the Lottery

The lottery raises billions of dollars annually in the United States. Some people play for fun, while others believe that it is their ticket to a better life. Regardless of one’s perspective, there is no denying that the odds are low, but many people continue to participate in the lottery. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in human societies, including several examples in the Bible. The modern lottery is a comparatively recent development, however.

In colonial America, lotteries played a major role in financing both private and public ventures. Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise funds for cannons in the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson held a private lottery to help pay his debts. In the seventeenth century, lottery money helped build roads, libraries, churches, canals, and colleges, and it also paid for military campaigns.

By the nineteenth century, state lotteries were well established and a regular feature of daily life in much of the country. They raised enormous sums, and their popularity increased during the Great Depression. The resurgence of lotteries in the nineteen-sixties was the result of two related phenomena: growing awareness that there was a lot of money to be made in gambling, and the realization that many states faced budgetary crises that could not be solved without raising taxes or cutting services.

Across the nation, state legislatures passed laws legalizing lotteries and established independent agencies to run them. Lottery advocates argued that the games were a painless alternative to raising taxes and cutting services. This narrower approach was appealing to voters, as it allowed them to view support for the lottery as a vote for a particular government service–typically education, but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks.

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