The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people draw numbers for prizes. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and organize state or national lotteries. The term derives from the Latin verb lottare, to throw or heave (see heave, sleeve). Unlike most games of chance, which involve dice and cards, a lottery has no set rules. It is often played for money, but it can also award goods, services, and land. Some governments outlaw the practice altogether, while others endorse it to varying degrees and regulate it through public service announcements, rules, and procedures.

The game’s roots in antiquity are deep. It is mentioned in the Bible and in classical literature, and Roman emperors used it to distribute property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. It was also common at dinner parties, where guests would put their names in a hat and draw for prizes. In the 16th century, Francis I of France introduced a state-sponsored lottery to boost his kingdom’s coffers. The modern lottery combines elements of these early lotteries with a game of skill and strategy.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, lotteries became popular in the United States as states cast about for solutions to fiscal crises that would not anger an anti-tax electorate. They were marketed as “budgetary miracles,” writes Cohen, and they did indeed help states maintain existing services without hiking taxes. However, the underlying politics of this approach was troubling. Lotteries gave white voters a chance to support gambling while paying for services they disliked, like education in inner-city areas that were favored by Black voters.

In an era when many people’s moral values were increasingly flexible, a large number of Americans embraced the lottery. They could, they believed, reconcile it with their ethical sensibilities by arguing that lottery revenues were a legitimate way for states to fund a single line item in the budget, typically education or elder care but sometimes public parks or aid for veterans. This narrower argument worked well enough to persuade a substantial segment of the white population, but it left those who opposed state-run gambling feeling disenfranchised.

As lottery use rose, it also morphed into an ideological tool that defused the average villager’s deep, inarticulate dissatisfaction with the social order in which they lived by channeling it into anger directed at its victims, just as Jesus was crucified for his rejection of traditional morality. In the story, Jackson shows how that process works by highlighting Tessie’s rebellion against the lottery tradition, culminating in her late arrival at the drawing and her subsequent rejection of the townspeople. The townspeople then scapegoat her as a warning to other potential rebels. This is the ultimate point of the lottery, but it seems to have failed in this case. The name Tessie Delacroix is particularly ironic, given that it is derived from the French word for cross.