History of the Lottery



A game of chance in which a draw of numbers, or sometimes other symbols or items, determines who gets something. The practice of distributing property, money, or other valuables by the casting of lots has a long history, including several instances in the Bible and many in the history of Rome. Lotteries in the modern sense of the word were first recorded in the 15th century in the Low Countries, where towns held them to raise funds for town fortifications or to help poor people.

In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries gained wide popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a way to raise money for public projects, such as building roads and bridges, paving streets, constructing wharves, and funding colleges and universities. Famous American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw great utility in them: Jefferson held a lottery to pay off debts, and Franklin used the proceeds to buy cannons for Philadelphia.

But lotteries have also become controversial on moral grounds, with critics saying they are regressive because the poor play them at higher rates than do the rich. In addition, they can lead to an unhealthy gambling addiction and, if the prize is large enough, a dangerously high level of risk-taking. Some states have attempted to address these problems by restricting participation or by reducing the size of prizes, but these measures have not been effective in eliminating the moral objections. In addition, the evolution of lotteries has often been piecemeal and incremental, and the resulting policies have had little influence on overall public policy.