The History of the Lottery


The lottery is an American tradition with a storied history. It was once widely used in Europe to fund church and other public projects, but it spread quickly to the colonies when it became obvious that the money could be raised without violating Protestant prohibitions against gambling. It has helped finance the construction of roads, canals, bridges, churches, libraries, and colleges. It has also provided the means to pay for military campaigns and for the settlement of the western frontier.

It also helped that the prizes were often large enough to be newsworthy, generating a stream of free publicity on newspaper front pages and television newscasts. And because the prize amounts were so substantial, the odds of winning were, on average, quite low–just one in a thousand or so.

This seemed to be a formula that would keep people playing. Nevertheless, there were ethical concerns about the game, which could not be dismissed easily. As Cohen explains, it was not uncommon for lottery patrons to choose numbers based on personal associations like birthdays and home addresses, which have a tendency to repeat themselves over time. When the jackpots grew to apparently newsworthy amounts, those combinations were likely to be repeated in future draws.

Lotteries were a common feature of life in early America, and they often got tangled up with the slave trade, too. George Washington once managed a lottery in Virginia that offered human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey purchased his freedom through a lottery prize.