Lotteries – drawing numbers at random for a prize (usually monetary) – were first instituted in England and then spread to the New World. Believe it or not, Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in North America – was partly financed by lotteries!
Here’s another fun fact. Many of our famous Founding Fathers were pro lottery. For example, George Washington unsuccessfully attempted to hold a lottery to fund Mountain Road in Virginia. Benjamin Franklin also failed in his attempt to use a lottery for canon funding in defense of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. The Virginia Legislature even gave Thomas Jefferson permission to hold a private lottery to pay off his debts. Unfortunately for him and his heirs, he died before it could be held. John Hancock, however, successfully raised lottery funds for the reconstruction of Boston’s Faneuil Hall after it burned down in 1761.
In 1776, Continental Congress voted to use a lottery to raise money for the Revolutionary War. That didn’t actually happen, but it paved the way (pardon the pun) for lottery funds to be used for paving roads and other types of construction. Lotteries also helped to pay for the construction of college buildings at Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and Yale.
After the Civil War, the South used lotteries to help fund Reconstruction, but corruption changed positive opinion of lotteries to negative and lotteries became widely opposed. It took until the early 20th Century for public opinion to waver.
Nevada casinos made lotteries legal once again in the 1930s and lottery popularity continued to gain momentum. Lotteries were instituted in New Hampshire and New York in the 60s and then followed in the 70s by 12 more Northeastern states that preferred raising tax money through the lottery instead of raising taxes. Those states were also largely Catholic and Catholics were known for being tolerant of gambling.
As they say, “We’ve come a long way, Baby!” Today, almost every state in our country holds lotteries and Americans spend billions of dollars each year on lottery tickets in an attempt to win their fortune.