The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn at random and prizes are awarded to those who purchase tickets. Prizes are usually cash, but can also be goods and services. Most states regulate the lottery and a portion of proceeds is typically donated to charitable causes. Although making decisions and determining fates by lot has a long history in human society, the first lottery to offer tickets for sale with prize money appears in the record in Western Europe during the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications.

At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress voted to establish a large public lottery to try to raise funds for the colonial army, but the scheme was abandoned. However, private lotteries continued to be popular in England and the United States as a means to obtain “voluntary taxes” that helped build several American colleges including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.

The process for creating a state-run lottery typically follows the same pattern: a government creates a monopoly by legislation or by licensing a private firm in return for a share of proceeds; begins operations with a modest number of games; and, due to pressure to maximize revenues, gradually expands its offerings in terms of the variety and complexity of the available games. This expansion, which often occurs without any direct governmental input or control, tends to run at cross-purposes with the goals of some critics who argue that state lotteries promote compulsive gambling and have regressive effects on lower-income people.