The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. Prizes may be money, merchandise or services. The idea of drawing names to distribute something equitably goes back centuries, with Moses instructed by God to divide up land according to lot and Roman emperors giving away slaves via the lottery (though not as a form of taxation, as they were gifts). In colonial America, public lotteries became commonplace despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. These lotteries, which sometimes offered up property and slaves as prizes, helped finance roads, libraries, churches, schools, and canals, among other public projects. They also played a role in bribing militia members and in attracting new immigrants.

In his article “The Lottery,” Andrew Cohen traces the modern history of this popular form of gambling, which has become part of American culture to such an extent that many people buy tickets for state-sponsored lotteries while purchasing groceries or Snickers bars. The rise of the modern lottery, he writes, began in the nineteen-sixties as growing awareness of the profits to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. The state’s budget was stretched to the breaking point, and balancing the books required either raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were extremely unpopular with voters.

The result was a booming, regulated gambling industry that fueled both addiction and economic growth, even as it entangled the lottery with slavery, as when George Washington managed a lottery for land and human beings in Virginia or when enslaved men like Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and used their winnings to foment a slave rebellion. But Cohen points out that a lottery isn’t really just a gambling game; it’s a marketing machine. Everything about it—advertising, the odds, the front of a ticket—is designed to keep players hooked.