A Little Bit of Lotto History (Including Thomas Jefferson's Take on Lotteries)

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Tonight's Mega Millions jackpot is up over $500 million—the biggest lottery prize ever. Whether you call it the poor man’s dream, a casino without walls, or a tax on the stupid, the lottery has deep and widespread roots. Here’s a look at three quick stories about the numbers game.

Lotteries of Yore

Lotteries have been around as long as arithmetic. According to the Bible, God ordered Moses to use a lottery to divvy up land along the River Jordan (it’s in the Book of Numbers, naturally). And that ain’t all the “good book” has to say about it: lotteries are also mentioned in Joshua, Leviticus, and Proverbs. The lottery can also be traced back to China, where a warlord named Cheung Leung came up with a numbers game to persuade citizens to help pay for his army. Today, it’s known as keno. Other famous lotteries? The Chinese used one to help finance the Great Wall; Augustus Caesar authorized one to raise money for public works projects in Rome. And in 1466, in what is now the Belgian town of Bruges, a lottery was created to help the poor—which lotteries supposedly have been doing ever since.

The Founding Fathers Took Their Chances

Displaying the astute politicians’ aversion to direct taxation, early American leaders often turned to lotteries to raise a buck or two. John Hancock organized several lotteries, including one to rebuild Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Ben Franklin used them during the Revolutionary War to purchase a cannon for the Continental Army. George Washington ran a lottery to pay for a road into the wilds of western Virginia. And Thomas Jefferson wrote of lotteries, “Far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of Man.” Of course, when he wrote it, he was trying to convince the Virginia legislature to let him hold a lottery to pay off his debts.

Louisiana: A Whole Lotto Love

By the end of the Civil War, lotteries in America had such bad reputations, they were banned in most states. But not in Louisiana, where a well bribed legislature in 1869 gave an exclusive charter to a private firm called the Louisiana Lottery Company. The company sold tickets throughout the country, and for 25 years, it raked in millions of dollars while paying out relatively small prizes and contributing chump change to a few New Orleans charities. Finally, in 1890, Congress passed a law banning the sale of lottery tickets through the mail, and eventually all multistate lottery sales were banned. What’s a corrupt U.S. company to do? Move offshore, of course! The Louisiana Lottery moved its operations to Honduras, and America was lottery free until 1963, when New Hampshire started the lottery cycle anew.

This post was excerpted from our book Forbidden Knowledge.

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March 30, 2012 - 6:21am
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