State Lotteries in the Early Republic: Or What I Learned from John Oliver originally planned to title this post: “Do I have to thank John Oliver in my dissertation acknowledgments?” In the first season finale of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, Oliver did a segment on state lotteries (NSFW, crude language), many of which fund education. In the final chapter of my dissertation, I devote a decent chunk of space discussing lotteries to fund schools in the critical period and early republic. If anything makes my research cool to non-academics, it’s that I can relate some of it to this John Oliver bit.

Let me back up for a second. Just before, I said that modern state lotteries often fund education. Actually, as Oliver shows, it would be more accurate to say that lotteries ostensibly fund public education. The fourteen-minute segment—which you really should watch if you haven’t yet—is a scathing indictment of the current lottery system. Despite the one-in-176-million odds that they would win a major jackpot, Americans, and disproportionately the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, in forty-four states spent about $68 billion on lottery tickets in 2013 alone. States aggressively sell lottery tickets, claiming that the proceeds benefit worthy causes, namely public education. In practice, lottery proceeds often do not supplement state education budgets. Instead they simply replace other sources of funding, which can shrink education budgets in the long run.

I rarely buy lotto tickets and had not given much thought to modern state lotteries before seeing the segment, but I found myself agreeing with most everything Oliver said. At the same time, though, Oliver’s line of argument struck me as rather old fashioned.

To me—and probably only to me—Oliver sounds a lot like “A Friend to the Public,” who published a series of essays opposing lotteries in the New-Jersey Journal in 1793. The immediate impetus for “A Friend’s” essays is simple enough.  The Newark (NJ) Academy suffered a lot of damage during the Revolutionary War. The board of trustees pieced together some money to rebuild the school, but not quite enough. To make up the difference, they successfully petitioned the state legislature for permission to run a lottery that raised up to £800.[1]  Shortly thereafter, the Academy’s “lottery managers” published a “scheme” for the lottery, which laid out the number of tickets they would sell, the odds, and the prizes.[2]

Newark Lottery scheme smallIn his first essay opposing the lottery, “A Friend” claimed that, according to his calculations, the Academy trustees would take in around £400 more than the state had authorized. He quickly moved beyond this immediate problem and raised more general concerns about lotteries. “A Friend” thought it was clear that “lotteries are not only impolitic, as they injure the community, but also immoral.”[3] Here he sought to undermine the main justification for lotteries then and now: they are worthwhile because they benefit a cause that serves the public good. “A Friend” picked up on this theme in his follow-up essay, which he began by arguing “that those vices are most pernicious to society which, at first view, appear to have virtue and policy for their object; of this nature are lotteries.”

Like Oliver, “A Friend” found lotteries troubling not just because they were state-supported gambling, but because the most vulnerable citizens felt their “pernicious effects” most acutely. In buying a ticket, he argued, we hope and pray to win “the property of the poor, the widow and orphan, which infatuated, have thrown in their little stock, in hopes of receiving the smiles of providence; by a valuable prize.”[4] In this way, lotteries threatened whole communities. “A Friend” bemoaned that lotteries “excit[ed] in the adventurers a covetous disposition,” and pitted members of a community against each other. Likewise, Oliver draws attention to the negative effects lotteries sometimes have on winners’ family lives. In the worst cases, winners become the target of violent, jealous players who lost.[5]

Both “A Friend” and Oliver more or less agree that, despite benefitting institutions that serve the public good, lotteries erode social bonds. In fact, they both suggest that lotteries entirely absolve citizens from having to act in the interest of the public weal. “A Friend” granted that in buying a ticket, I “assist in promoting some useful purpose.” He wondered, though, “is public utility our object in purchasing and holding tickets?” “Would we pay the price” he continued, “were we certain to receive no pecuniary compensation.” He believed the answer was no. “Experience proves,” “A Friend” wrote, “that public utility is not our principle of action, and that we are prompted by a selfish motive.”

Ultimately, lotteries frustrated “A Friend” because they saved politicians from having to ask citizens to look beyond their own self interest and act to benefit the common good. This sounds like a predictable argument that we expect an eighteenth-century republican would make. Indeed, the one published critique of “A Friend” questioned whether he really believed that “he can bring any new arguments against lotteries more than have been published for ages past?”[6] The critic, writing under the pseudonym “A Farmer,” surmised that “A Friend” used the rhetoric to couch some other motive for opposing the Newark Academy.[7]

The rhetoric may have sounded hackneyed in the 1790s, yet in 2014, John Oliver concluded his segment with the same sentiments. According to Oliver, by taking advantage of some citizens in order to spare others from having to pay taxes, lotteries enable politicians to skirt their duty to fund public schools responsibly.

I did not write this post merely to highlight the similarities in these two critiques of lotteries. Rather, I wanted to point out that John Oliver actually changed how I think and write about eighteenth-century education lotteries. Initially, I assumed that “A Farmer’s” critique of “A Friend” was correct. And so I dismissed much of “A Friend’s” essays as disingenuous, and the rhetoric he used as inconsequential and overblown. After watching Oliver, I began to take the rhetoric quite seriously. “A Friend’s” arguments no longer seemed old-fashioned and unoriginal, but important and enduring.


[1] Acts of the Seventeenth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey. At a Session Begun at Trenton the 23d Day of October 1792, and Continued by Adjournments. Being the Second Sitting. (Trenton: Printed by Isaac Collins, 1793), chap. 430, p. 837.

[2] “Scheme of the Newark Academy Lottery, (of Only One Class) to Finish and Compleat an Academy in the Town of Newark, Agreeably to an Act of the Legislature of the State of New-Jersey,” 1793.  Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 46837.

[3] New-Jersey Journal, Aug. 21, 1793.

[4] New-Jersey Journal, Sep. 18, 1793.

[5] I can’t resist pointing out that this trope is important to the TV series LOST. 

[6] New-Jersey Journal, Sep. 18, 1793.

[7] “A Farmer” supposed that “A Friend” just lived in a competing town and was jealous of Newark’s academy.

7 responses

  1. Thanks, Mark, this is timely info for me. I just read in the Boston Globe that the average resident of Chelsea, the fifth poorest town in Massachusetts, spent $1,179 last year on state lottery tickets. Quite obviously, lotteries don’t benefit the poor. Lotteries benefit the folks who could pay more taxes, but don’t want to.
    As you say, “A Friend” recognized the “pernicious effects” of lotteries more than 200 years ago. Maybe he wouldn’t be surprised by what we’ve got today.

  2. Thanks! At least once, Providence smiled upon an enslaved man in Gloucester. Captain Charles Byles noted in his account book that Robing worked for years to purchase his own freedom for 150 pounds old tenor. Robin paid off the last chunk with 18 pounds of winnings on January 12, 1770. Robin changed his name to Robert and made a life in a first-period home that still stands at the head of Little River. His descendant, Harriet P. Johnson, spent her life there too. Thomas Dalton, the Boston abolitionist (who grew up in Gloucester), was her uncle.

  3. Informative post! Thanks for sharing. It’s always interesting what can inspire others to dig deeper into things. It’s also suprising how little has changed in some regards in 200 years. Perhaps “A Friend” wouldn’t be all that surprised.


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