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Colonial Lotteries and the American Revolution

Updated on September 1, 2014

The American Revolution and Lottery Financing

Lotteries were common in Colonial America, and used for many different purposes - both for public good and private interests, but lottery financing for the American Revolution was not what most people believe.

Contrary to what is inferred by many sources on colonial lotteries, there was only one known nationwide lottery specifically for the revolution, and it failed to raise any money.


Colonial American Lotteries

Like many incorrect facts, those concerning the lotteries for the American Revolution start with some true information, but end up with extrapolation or assumption instead of truth. The facts that the American colonies did use state lotteries for public uses, (bridges, school houses, etc.), and that the 1776 Continental Congress did authorize and initiate a lottery to help finance the war against Great Britain, were the basis of the assumptions that lotteries helped finance the struggle for independence.

From; Lotteries in Colonial America By Neal Millikan

"In November 18,1776 Congress adopted a national lottery for the campaign of 1777, and avoid emitting more paper money and further decreasing the value of Continental currancy."

"The first nationwide lottery in America faced problems unknown to its colonial predecessors. Managers had to postpone the drawing date twice because receivers had a difficult time trying to locate adventurers for the 100,000 tickets per class, (there were four classes), during a war."

Source: Lotteries in Colonial America pg. 83-85

The true answer is that no significant money was raised for the American Revolution by lottery. That is the short answer. The explanation for why some folks think otherwise is a little more detailed, but easily understood.

Lotteries for bridges and schools

An general search for information about colonial lotteries turns up a lot of "iffy" information. Many articles on the topic use a single particular number - 200. The fact that the colonies ran over 200 various lotteries for..., appeared in article after article, and can probably be traced to this entry in Wikipedia:

It has been recorded that more than 200 lotteries were sanctioned between 1744 and 1776...

Yet, in a book by Neal Millikan - Lotteries in Colonial America1, using period newspapers, broadsides, and circulars as sources, the author finds references to over 390 lotteries in the colonies between 1721 and 1783. So while there may have been 200 lotteries in the time period stated in Wikipedia, the same time period is not always outlined in other articles using the 200 number, and the 200 number seldom varies. Which tends to lessen the credibility of the number as a fact.

Regardless of the actual number of lotteries, it is a safe conclusion that the colonies frequently used lotteries to raise money - in lieu of direct taxation. A real fact that tends to lend authority to the assumption that the American Revolution was at least partially funded by lottery finances.

1Lotteries in Colonial America (Studies in American Popular History and Culture) by Neal Millikan 138 pages, published April 2011


Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress

Two more facts that may have contributed to the misinformation.

Benjamin Franklin did organize and run a lottery that was used to purchase cannons to help defend Philadelphia, but this was for defense against Canada, around 1758-60, not the Revolutionary struggle against Great Britain.

Also, the Continental Congress of 1776 did authorize and institute a United States National Lottery to help finance the American Revolution, but public support for, and participation in, the lottery was so weak that the actual winning drawing was postponed twice before the entire lottery effort was finally canceled in 1782.

Did you know colonial lotteries were so prevalent?

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Almost Zero Lottery Dollars

The only national lottery for the revolution failed, and raised no significant money for the fight. And that is the true answer to the question. The American Revolution was financed by almost no dollars from lotteries.


About the Author

Reporting for the Daily Constitutional, and The Curmudgeon's desk - GA Anderson

See more of my writings at:

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