The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a random drawing in which participants bet small sums of money in the hope of winning a larger prize. It is an addictive form of gambling that has often been criticized as corrupt and exploitative. But it has also been used to finance government projects, including roads and libraries. Most states have legalized lotteries in the last sixty years, and they are one of the most popular forms of gambling. Some are run by state governments, others by private companies whose profits go to charities. Some are sponsored by professional sports teams and celebrities, and many use brand-name products as prizes.

In colonial America, lots were a common way of funding both public and private ventures. George Washington ran a lottery to pay for the construction of the Mountain Road in Virginia, Benjamin Franklin supported lotteries to buy cannons for his militia, and John Hancock organized a lottery to help rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston. Lotteries were sometimes entangled with slavery, too; for example, Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and later helped foment slave rebellions.

In Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” a contemporary small-town American lottery is seen as a dangerous practice that threatens to deprive the community of its traditional values. The story provides a window into the ways in which people’s traditions can override logic and reason.

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