The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine a winner. It is a common feature of public and private games that raise money for townships, schools, wars, and other projects. This game has a long history, beginning with the drawing of lots to determine property rights in ancient times and continuing to this day. Lotteries have a controversial status, attracting both enthusiastic supporters and vociferous opponents. Some critics charge that they promote gambling addiction, while others argue that they provide a painless way for states to increase their revenue without raising taxes.

The narrator describes the annual lottery ritual in a small village, noting that the children pile up stones and the adults chant an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” Many of these villagers believe that the sacrifice of an innocent citizen increases their harvest yield. The narrator questions the value of this superstition, noting that some villages have stopped holding the lottery. The townspeople respond that the lottery has always been held and should continue.

In the modern world, most state lotteries are run as monopolies by a government agency or public corporation, rather than by licensing private firms for a share of profits. They begin operations with a limited number of simple games and then, as revenues rise, expand their offerings to keep people interested. After a period of dramatic expansion, the revenues level off or even decline, leading to a cycle of new innovations in order to maintain or increase the amount of money that is won.

While the initial enthusiasm for state lotteries has waned, public opinion still holds that they are a desirable source of revenue for governments. In the early years of the American colonies, a lottery was used to raise funds for the Continental Congress in 1776 and to supply Benjamin Franklin with cannons to defend Philadelphia against British troops. Later, lotteries were used to finance many public and private projects in the United States, including constructing Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary colleges.

A number of studies have demonstrated that lotteries win broad public approval mainly because of their perception as “painless” sources of revenue. In other words, voters want their state to spend more, while politicians are willing to pay a premium in order to receive that spending power without having to raise taxes or cut other programs. Despite this dynamic, studies also show that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to have much bearing on whether or when it adopts a lottery.

Jackson’s choice of the name of her protagonist, Tessie Hutchinson, is an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan religious dissenter who was banished from Massachusetts for advocating non-conformist beliefs. The allusion to Hutchinson reinforces the idea that the lottery in the story is a dangerous superstition that is threatening the peace and prosperity of the village. The name of the lottery’s victim, Dickie Delacroix, also evokes the crucifix, an image associated with Christ’s death for the sake of humanity.