The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which participants purchase tickets and, for a small fee, have a chance to win a prize. Prizes can include money, goods, services, or even a college scholarship. In the United States, the term is usually applied to state-sponsored games in which money or prizes are awarded based on a random drawing of numbers or names. In some states, the term is also used to refer to a process for awarding such things as public contracts or office appointments, such as the selection of judges and jury members. In some cases, a lottery may be held to determine a quotient for military conscription or the distribution of property.

The idea of a lottery has been around for centuries. It was used in the Old Testament and by Roman emperors, and later introduced to American colonies as a way of raising money for public projects. It was popularized during the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress voted to use lotteries as a way to raise funds for the army. At the time, the idea was hailed by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as a painless form of taxation. Both argued that “Everybody… will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain,” and would prefer “a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning little.”

Lotteries were widely used in colonial America, often for private as well as public purposes. They helped finance roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and bridges. They also provided a source of funding for both the Continental Army and for local militias. In addition, private lotteries were common in England and the United States as a means of selling products or properties for more money than could be obtained from a regular sale. By 1832, lottery activity was widespread in the United States; the Boston Mercantile Journal reported that 420 lotteries had been held that year alone.

Despite the widespread perception that everyone plays the lottery, research shows that only 50 percent of Americans play the game. And those who do play are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. Furthermore, as with all commercial products, lottery sales are responsive to economic fluctuation. Lottery spending increases when unemployment and poverty rates increase, and when the media promotes advertisements.

In the story The Lottery, Shirley Jackson explores the power of tradition. The villagers in her story are so bound to their traditions that they ignore the evidence of sexism and racism, and cannot bring themselves to recognize that it is Tessie who is the victim. Look for more hidden symbols in this story and write a literary analysis essay about it. Especially pay attention to the theme of hypocrisy.