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A Look at Gambling Before 1831

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How did people gamble before 1831? While the Indians threw dice or wagered on the outcome of sporting events, the first efforts to colonize America were being financed by English lotteries. In 1611, the Virginia Company of London was in financial difficulty because of the unexpectedly high start-up costs of its plantation project in Virginia. Mounting debts, coupled with the colony's problems in developing marketable exports, led the directors to seek other funding schemes. Company officials, encouraged by the success of lotteries in Europe, lobbied and were granted a franchise from the Crown to conduct similar drawings in England. Profits from the lotteries were earmarked for the Virginia Colony.

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Between 1612 and 1615, the Virginia Company held four raffles in London, marketing tickets by advertising that purchasers of a lottery ticket were honoring both God and country. The company promised that 'so worthie an enterprise' would advance the cause of 'Christian truth, the honor of our nation, & benefite of English people.' At the same time that company officials were trying to hype lottery sales in England, they were trying to check gambling in Virginia. Responding to reports that gaming, idleness, and vice were rampant in the colony, the Virginia Company incorporated anti-gambling ordinances into Jamestown's first legal code.

Although these codes were generally ineffective in curbing the growth of gaming in Virginia before 1831, they represented a peculiar perspective. The curious logic that allowed and encouraged gambling in one context but disapproved and outlawed in another was to characterize the American gambling experience and foster an ambivalence that has only recently begun to be resolved.

The Puritans of Massachusetts were opposed to gambling on the grounds that such activity was immoral. Common Mather's pronouncements were representative of this viewpoint. On several occasions, he condemned gambling as 'an appearance of evil as such forbidden in the word of God.'

However, in the early eighteenth century, when massive funds were needed for the construction of colleges, roads, and churches, these same colonies turned to a familiar vehicle--- the lottery. The first lotteries in America were private enterprises; merchants used them to dispose of inventories; developers, to sell real estate; and farmers, to improve their land.

As these private ventures became more commonplace, they came under the scrutiny of colonial governments. Government efforts to restrict lotteries were motivated by a familiar combination of paternalism and self-interest. In 1719, the Massachusetts General Court lambasted lotteries for tempting the 'Children and Expense of money'. However, in 1732, the Rhode Island Legislature restricted lotteries on the grounds that they 'lead unwary persons into a foolish expense of money which may tend to the great hurt of the government'.

In 1747, the New York State Legislature criticized lotteries for causing 'Pernicious Consequences to the public'. Colonial governments, rather than banning private lotteries, undertook to regulate them, and by 1750s, most states officially authorized their operation. Unauthorized lotteries were deemed illegal. Many of those authorized were operated by municipalities, churches, public utilities, and schools.

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