The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize, usually money. The winners are selected by a random drawing. Many governments organize state-run lotteries to raise money for a variety of public purposes. People also play privately organized lotteries, often for much higher stakes. The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “destiny.” It is a form of gambling that has been around for centuries.

In the early days of the American Republic, when our banking and taxation systems were still in development, public lotteries became popular ways to raise cash quickly for a wide range of government projects. The Continental Congress voted in 1776 to hold a lottery to help finance the Revolution, and famous American leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held private lotteries to retire their debts or purchase cannons for Philadelphia.

Despite the enduring popularity of lotteries, there is considerable controversy surrounding them. Some critics argue that they prey on the illusory hopes of poor and working-class people, and that their use of a regressive method of taxation (one that burdens lower-income taxpayers more than richer ones) is unseemly. Other objections focus on the alleged addictive nature of lottery games, as well as concerns about the way in which they divert attention from more important matters of public policy.

While the history of the lottery is rich and varied, its present-day operation shares a number of common features. States typically establish a monopoly for themselves, choose a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits), start operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and progressively expand them in size and complexity.

Although it is difficult to estimate how many Americans play the lottery, it is clear that the numbers are substantial. The most recent study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that more than six million adults, or 11% of the population, reported playing the lottery in 2007. And while there are no official estimates of the prevalence of compulsive lottery gambling, there is evidence to suggest that it is widespread.

In the United States, state-run lotteries have developed extensive, specific constituencies that extend beyond the general populace to include convenience store operators (who serve as the primary vendors for tickets); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers (in those states in which lotteries earmark funds for education); and state legislators (who grow accustomed to the influx of lottery revenues). Amid all these interests, lottery critics are divided into three broad categories. The first group is concerned with the overall social desirability of lotteries; the second concerns the problem of compulsive lottery gamblers; and the third, a more practical concern, involves the effect that the existence of lotteries has on other forms of legal gambling.