The History of the Lottery


As early as the seventeenth century, lottery advocates were dismantling long-held ethical objections to gambling by arguing that “if people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits.” Those arguments failed to address the fact that lottery profits were often diverted to slave owners, but they provided the moral cover governments needed to establish state lotteries. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to raise money for the army. Licensed promoters were also running private lotteries to fund public projects, such as building the British Museum and repairing bridges in the American colonies. The founding fathers were big fans of lotteries: Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to help finance his battery for the defense of Philadelphia, and John Hancock helped build Boston’s Faneuil Hall with one. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery that included human beings as prizes, and a formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won one and used the prize money to buy his freedom and foment a slave rebellion.

Those who play the lottery have an expectation that their winnings will be paid in a lump sum, but this is not the case. Winnings are typically invested in an annuity that pays out a series of payments over thirty years. The value of those payments diminishes over time, and withholding taxes can eat up a significant portion of the advertised jackpot. The plot of Marshall’s short story shows that the evil nature of humans never really changes, even when they renounce their hopes of liberation from oppressive cultures.