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Gambling: Financing Lotteries for a Good Cause

Lotteries to finance public improvements were especially popular in colonial cities.

The urban setting provided the best environment for the schemes because of its concentration of people and wealth.

Moreover, urbanities, who experienced, too, the shortage of currency, also suffered heavy taxation, particularly during the eighteenth-century wars that involved the western margin of the British empire.

Philadelphia's fiscal predicament grew so acute around mid-century that the city actually speculated in lottery tickets itself, but far more commonly city dwellers sponsored lotteries as a method of funding needed improvements.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential urbanite of the colonial period, organized a successful contest in the 1740s to raise money for strengthening the defenses of Philadelphia during the War of the Austrian Succession.

Franklin's scheme typified the colonists' approach. The rulers of England held regular, nationwide lotteries in order to raise money for the state, but Americans wove smaller, simpler, more frequent schemes into the fabric of daily business and local government.

Private sponsors conducted the first lotteries, but complaints that the schemes interfered with commerce agitated the lower classes and encouraged fraud soon moved colonial governments to regulate lotteries.

Lawmakers probably hoped as well to reduce the number of competing contests, since they were turning to the device increasingly for revenue.

By 1776, all but two colonies, Maryland and North Carolina, required that lotteries headquartered near Philadelphia on islands in the Delaware River, in between the enforced boundaries of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, flourished outside of any apparent legal jurisdiction.

Most colonists did not seem to mind lotteries, whether legal or not, so long as they did not get out of hand.

The raffles were designed either to facilitate business deals or to raise money from voluntary contributors for improvements commonly recognized as in the public interest.

Some wondered why any good cause needed a lottery to attract funding, and Quakers opposed the practice on principle, but most people recognized that these commercial transactions and voluntary taxes generally served everyone.

A lottery held on Pettie's Island, in the Delaware River, in 1772, demonstrated the range of good causes supported by the device.

Promoters pledged to divide the revenue between a Presbyterian church, a German Lutheran church, the Newark Academy, and 'three Schoolmasters in Philadelphia'.

Besides supporting churches and schools, lotteries were authorized for the construction of public buildings, roads and bridges, wharves, defense installations, immigrant halfway houses, and new industries, and for the relief of private debtors and charities.

Men as well-known as Franklin, Robert Morris, John Hancock, Samuel Seabury, and George Washington affiliated themselves with various schemes.

In sum, lotteries were accepted throughout colonial society and continued to be popular after the Revolution.