The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants buy tickets for a chance to win a prize, such as cash or goods. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. It is a common method for raising funds for public projects. Historically, the money raised through lotteries has been distributed to various social programs. The first known reference to a lottery dates from the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), and is probably a calque on Middle French loterie (the action of drawing lots), which itself may be a calque on Latin lotium (“action of casting lots”).

As early as the fourteenth century, people in the Low Countries used lotteries to help fund town fortifications and charity. Later, the lottery became popular in England and then in the American colonies, where it was a common source of funds for a wide range of public works, from building the British Museum to repairing bridges. Lotteries were also tangled up with the slave trade, often in unexpected ways. George Washington managed a lottery in Virginia that included human beings as prizes, and one formerly enslaved person, Denmark Vesey, won a South Carolina draw and used the winnings to purchase his freedom before fomenting a slave rebellion.

In modern America, Cohen argues, the lottery’s popularity surged in the nineteen-sixties as growing awareness of the money to be made by the gaming industry collided with budgetary crises in many states. With populations and welfare costs skyrocketing, state legislators found it increasingly difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—two options that outraged an antitax electorate.

Lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the lottery as a silver bullet that would float the entire state’s budget, began shifting their pitch. They started arguing that the proceeds would pay for a single line item, usually some form of government service—education, elder care, public parks, aid for veterans—that was widely popular and nonpartisan. In this way, they hoped that voters would see a vote for the lottery not as a vote for gambling but as a vote in favor of education or whatever other government service.

But a big part of the lottery’s appeal is that it is essentially an exercise in covetousness. Lotteries entice people by promising that they can make their lives better, offering the hope of solving all their problems with a few winning tickets. But God forbids covetousness, and the truth is that money can’t solve problems; it can only mask them. For example, it isn’t enough to make up for a broken marriage, a failing health condition, or the loss of a job. In fact, a sudden windfall can even bring new problems—and new temptations. It’s important to keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to play the lottery.