The History of the Lottery


A lottery is an organized game of chance in which participants pay a sum of money for a chance to win a prize. The prizes can range from cash to goods or services. Lotteries are often used to raise money for public works projects and social programs. The games can be regulated or unregulated. They can be played at a public venue or in private homes. The winning numbers or symbols are chosen by drawing lots or some other random procedure. Computers are increasingly used in this process. This randomizing mechanism ensures that chance, rather than the selection of tickets purchased by individuals, determines the winners.

The history of the lottery is long and complex, with roots in ancient Egypt and China. In America, the lottery became common in the early colonies despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling and other forms of entertainment. Benjamin Franklin helped organize a lottery to finance the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia, and George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery that advertised land and slaves as prizes in The Virginia Gazette.

When legalization advocates could no longer sell the lottery as a silver bullet to float every state budget, they shifted their pitch. They began to argue that the revenue would cover a specific line item, usually a popular government service like education or elder care that had been earmarked for cuts. In this way, voters could support the lottery without supporting gambling or the prospect of higher taxes.