Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gambling in America

Gambling, gaming, cards, lotteries, racing – they were an integral part of daily life during America’s Revolution. Frequenting gaming parlors and taverns was considered pleasant entertainment for aristocratic gentlemen. They were sophisticated and good company. Whatever criticism was out there, the general population cast away its doubts and gambled also.

Washington gambled all his life. He did what well-bred gentlemen did. After all, that’s what he wanted to be.

In the years since, public perception has varied widely. Lotteries, for instance, have achieved a certain respectability because they can help fund civic projects. In 1777 our Founding Fathers realized the value of lotteries to try to fund a war for which they essentially had no steady revenue. Lotteries weren’t a tax, which boosted their approval.

Today, most states run a lottery. The pay-off is good, it’s all legal, and it’s very easy to play. How much revenue for the state is generated is never completely clear to me. Schools are supposed to be large beneficiaries.

America is addicted to gambling, on anything, anytime, everywhere. Ominous facts about its effects on society have never made any difference. During our prohibition years, gambling (and alcohol) just went underground.

Washington’s troops carried their playing cards into battle. In lean times, they gambled who would get something to eat, even acorns. Washington, in a fine show of hypocrisy, was so concerned about rampant gambling in the ranks that he sent out orders to try and curtail the excessive wagering.

Gambling became an established part of US history. The Mississippi river boats plied their trade successfully. In the “Old West” every community had its representative gambling parlor, with entertainment, liquor, and probably ladies of easier virtue. Men, when not chasing outlaws, were playing and quarreling over poker. Today, casinos have become a glittering destination for serious card playing, slots, good food and accommodations, and of course, entertainment.

Alexander Hamilton, our new country’s money man, had practical ideas on how to sell lottery tickets. Make the tickets cheap. Concentrate on big pay-offs. And for state lotteries, sell ticket by their borders to entice neighbors.

Gambling was always part of our earlier culture. It helped found the colony of Virginia. There was always great dissent, as noted previously.

Americans were so fond of playing cards that when the Stamp Act (1765) included a tax on playing cards, it aroused fury. Our Declaration of Independence was declared only eleven years later!

Is it a sin, to use that potent term, ruining the very fabric of our society? Well, consider a front page article in the LA Times 10/16/2009, describing how a 97 year old woman and two sons in their sixties live in a ’73 Suburban on the streets. Among the items on the dash: lottery tickets.

Private lotteries – the raffle – are very prevalent today. Generally, they are smaller, entry is much cheaper, prizes are smaller, well, mostly. You buy a fifty cent raffle ticket, win a dozen prize cupcakes, and everyone is happy You betcha! –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Smuggling and the American Revolution

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