The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small amount of money for a chance to win a larger sum. The odds of winning are very slim, but despite the low probability of winning, many people still play the lottery. The reason for this is the same as why people play other types of gambling, such as casino games. People simply enjoy the thrill of a possible big payout.

Although making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history, the modern lottery is comparatively recent. Its earliest incarnation is credited to the ancient Romans, who used lotteries as dinner entertainment and for giving away property and slaves. The lottery was later popularized by the emperor Augustus, who used it to raise funds for city repairs.

When New Hampshire began a state lottery in 1964, it inspired a wave of other states to follow suit. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have a lottery, with New Hampshire leading the pack. Lottery advocates claim that it is a “painless” way to raise funds for public needs. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Lotteries generate enormous revenues, but most of the money ends up in the pockets of private businessmen and women. The state’s general fund gets only a small share of the total revenue, and even that amount is frequently spent by legislators on other priorities.

It is true that some people spend a great deal of time and effort trying to beat the odds in order to win the lottery. This phenomenon is reflected in Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, in which she depicts a small, remote American village and the petty behaviors of its inhabitants. The people gathered for the lottery seem unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, which are mainly motivated by greed.

In the seventeenth century, it was common in the Netherlands to organize lotteries for a variety of purposes, including collecting charity funds and providing town fortifications. The practice spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery in 1567. It was designed to raise funds for the repair of towns and cities, but it also benefited the poor and provided a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card: anyone who played the lottery was not subject to prosecution for most crimes, except murder and treason.

The lottery in colonial America served similar functions, financing everything from the paving of streets and building wharves to the foundation of Yale and Harvard Universities. During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against British attack. Thomas Jefferson attempted to hold a private lottery to alleviate his crushing debts, but his scheme was unsuccessful.

In the present era, the lottery continues to provide painless revenues for the state government. Its popularity is widespread, with almost all Americans reporting playing at least once a year. It is supported by convenience store operators (who benefit from the high volume of sales); suppliers to state-run lotteries (whose executives contribute heavily to political campaigns); teachers, in those states that earmark lottery revenues for education; and legislators who are eager to get a piece of the action.