The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling where people choose numbers to win a prize. Most states offer several different types of lotteries. Some are instant-win scratch-off games and others are daily games where you pick six numbers from a range of one to 50. No particular set of numbers is luckier than any other, and the odds of winning are the same for every ticket.

In early America, lotteries were a frequent and often controversial means of raising money for everything from building town fortifications to paying off debt. Despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling, they became popular in colonial towns and helped spread English culture to the New World. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress relied on lotteries to help fund the Colonial Army. Lotteries were also tangled up with the slave trade in unpredictable ways, as when George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and when a formerly enslaved man bought his freedom in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

Cohen writes that the enduring popularity of lotteries is due to “a peculiar ambivalence about state power.” State leaders saw them as a way to raise revenue without having to touch the touchy subject of taxes. They dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling, and argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, they might as well let the government pocket some of the profits.

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