The History of the Lottery

Gambling Jan 5, 2024

Lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize is awarded to the winner of a drawing of numbers or other symbols. The drawing is usually conducted by a state or a private company, and the prizes may be cash or goods. Many states have laws regulating the conduct of lotteries, and some have banned them altogether. Other states have legalized lotteries to raise money for public purposes or to promote charitable or social activities. The lottery has grown in popularity and is now an integral part of American culture, raising billions of dollars each year.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were recorded in Europe in the first half of the 15th century. The word is thought to be derived from Middle Dutch loterij, a calque of Middle French loterie, which itself is believed to be a calque on Old English lootie, “the action of drawing lots.”

Making decisions or determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history, with examples in the Bible and in Roman emperor Nero’s use of lottery draws to distribute property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were used by the Continental Congress to fund the Revolutionary War, and in colonial America to raise money for local improvements and to supply a battery of guns to defend Philadelphia and rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Although they were considered to be hidden taxes, lotteries enjoyed broad popular support. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both in favor of lotteries, with Hamilton recognizing what would become the essence of the lottery: that everybody “will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain,” and that most people “prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a great chance of winning little.”

After the Civil War, when states began desperately searching for ways to raise public funds that did not enrage anti-tax voters, they turned to lotteries, which proved enormously successful in attracting large and rapidly growing numbers of participants. Today, state lotteries are widespread throughout the United States and attract more than six million players a week.

Unlike most other forms of gambling, which involve a payment of some kind for the chance to win, most lottery prizes are based on a random selection process. Those prizes are usually the remainder of the pool after expenses (profits for the promoter and the costs of promotion) and taxes or other revenues have been deducted.

The events depicted in this short story illustrate the evil nature of ordinary human beings. Although the characters in this story acted in conformity with cultural beliefs and practices, they mistreated each other with little consideration of their negative impacts on human welfare. Jackson presents this theme as a commentary on hypocrisy and the ineptitude of mankind. The lottery as portrayed in this short story illustrates this point clearly. The lottery demonstrates the way in which oppressive cultures deem hopes of liberalization as worthless, and the way that people tolerate mistreatment of one another as long as it is done in accordance with cultural norms.