The Evolution of the Official Lottery

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lotteries were an invaluable tool for building the new nation, where banking and taxation systems had yet to fully mature. Thomas Jefferson used a lottery to retire debts, Benjamin Franklin ran one to fund a militia, and John Hancock ran another to raise money to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

But the public’s moral and religious uneasiness with gambling started to turn in the 1800s, and corruption was a big factor as well, says Matheson. It was around this time that Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, won a lottery and used the winnings to try to buy his freedom—an effort that ultimately failed.

Lotteries declined in popularity through the end of the nineteenth century as bond sales and standardized taxation made them less attractive to states. By the nineteen-sixties, a growing population and inflation had pushed state budgets into the red, and balancing them without raising taxes or cutting services was proving impossible for many.

In the late seventies, however, a group of states began banding together to increase jackpot sizes and attract more players, leading to multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions. Supporters argue that the games are easy to run and a painless alternative to higher taxes, while opponents say they skirt taxation, skim costs from the poor, and offer fickle gamblers little security from gambling addictions.