The History of the Lottery


A competition in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize to be determined by chance; often used as a way of raising money for the state or a charity.

The casting of lots for decisions and determining fates has long been an important part of human history, with several instances documented in the Bible and throughout history. However, a lottery to raise funds for material gains is more recent, being first introduced in the West during the reign of Augustus Caesar for municipal repairs and later in Bruges, Belgium for distributing prize money to the winner of a horse race.

Lotteries gained popularity in the early United States, where they were widely used as a way to raise revenue for public projects and services. They also figured prominently in the nation’s slavery history, with George Washington managing a Virginia lottery whose prizes included slaves and Alexander Hamilton grasping that “everyone will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain, and would rather take an small probability of winning a great deal than a large probability of winning little.”

State governments have been experimenting with various forms of lotteries since the nineteenth century, but the modern lottery is relatively new. It began in New Hampshire, a state famously tax-averse, in 1964, and quickly spread to other Northeastern states with large social safety nets that needed additional revenue. The expansion of the lottery was accelerated in the late nineteen-seventies and eighties, as the gap between rich and poor widened, income taxes and pensions rose, health-care costs increased, job security eroded, and our national promise that education and hard work would allow children to live better than their parents seemed out of reach.

Advocates of the lottery argue that its benefits outweigh its drawbacks, which include a risk of addictive gambling and a regressive effect on low-income groups. But critics point to the fact that lottery revenues usually increase rapidly after a state’s lottery is introduced, and then level off or even decline, leading to the constant introduction of new games in a bid to sustain and increase revenues.

The debate surrounding the lottery is a microcosm of the larger issues facing American society. It reflects the deep distrust that many citizens feel for government and the widespread perception that most people are out to take advantage of them, whether that takes the form of illegal drug trafficking or excessive amounts spent on a lottery ticket. Those feelings are especially acute for lower-income Americans, who tend to play the lottery at higher rates and to spend more on tickets, making them more likely to lose their money. They are also more likely to be among the victims of crime, including burglary, theft, and robbery. Nonetheless, the vast majority of American adults do not believe that their state’s lottery is a significant source of criminal activity. And in many ways, this skepticism is justified. After all, when it comes to deciding which judges will hear a case, which prosecutors will be assigned to which cases, and which projects will receive funding, the allocation of resources is always a bit of a lottery.