The First Wave: 1600’s to mid 1800’s

The early colonies had very different attitudes towards gambling. Historians have classified the early settlers into two groups, the English who brought along the English traditions and beliefs, and the Puritans.

The Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed not only the possession of cards, dice, and gaming tables (even in private homes), but also dancing and singing. This stance was relaxed slightly the following year so as to allow gaming as long as it was for innocent and moderate recreation and not as a trade or calling. This hostility towards the professional gambler is a common theme that will be seen again as we look at the history of U.S. gambling.

n other colonies, English attitudes towards gambling and recreation prevailed. These settlers brought with them the view that gambling was a harmless diversion. In these colonies, gambling was a popular and accepted activity. Legal gambling tended to be those types that were considered proper gentlemen’s diversions.

One prominent researcher speculates that the appeal of gambling was probably heightened by the frontier spirit. The desire to explore new worlds is similar to gambling. Both rely heavily on high expectations, risk taking, opportunism, and movement.3

Despite the acceptance, gambling began to be blamed for the problems of the colonies. To investors and others in England, the prevalence of gambling suggested an atmosphere of idleness and vice. Financiers began to suspect that it was the root cause of the inability of the colonies to sustain themselves.4 The colonies had been relying on England to supply provisions and to replace dying settlers.

Lotteries Used to Bail Out the Early Colonies. Although the financial backers of the colonies viewed gambling as a source of the colonies’ problems, they began to see it as the solution as well. The Virginia Company of London, the financier of Jamestown in Virginia, was permitted by the Crown to hold lotteries to raise money for the company’s colonial venture. The lotteries were relatively sophisticated and included instant winners. Eventually, the crown banned the lotteries because of complaints that they were robbing England of money.5

All 13 original colonies established lotteries, usually more than one, to raise revenue.

Playing the lottery became a civic responsibility.6 Proceeds helped establish some of the nation’s earliest and most prestigious universities — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, and William and Mary. Lottery funds were also used to build churches and libraries. Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and George Washington were all prominent sponsors of specific lotteries for public works projects.

Lotteries became an issue in the drive for independence of the colonies. The colonies protested the crown’s rules for holding lotteries. In 1769, the crown tried to prevent lotteries from occurring without its permission. Once the war of independence started, the Continental Congress voted a $10 million lottery to finance the war. The lottery had to be abandoned, however, because it was too large and the tickets could not be sold.

The Popularity of Lotteries Continued in the Early 19th Century. Notable among the later lotteries was a private lottery passed by Congress in 1823 for the beautification of Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the organizers absconded with the proceeds and the winner was never paid.

Lotteries were not the only form of gambling during this era. Wagering on horse racing was a popular form of gambling.

Casino gaming started slowly. Taverns and roadhouses would allow dice and card games. The relatively sparse population was a barrier to establishing gaming houses. But as the population increased, by the early 1800s lavish casinos were established in the young republic.

The United States and Gambling Move West. As previously mentioned, gambling and the frontier lifestyle shared similar foundations — a spirit of adventure, opportunity, and risk taking. During the early 1800s gambling in the lower Mississippi Valley became a legitimate and organized enterprise. The Mississippi River and connected waterways were major avenues of trade for farmers and merchants and the river boats carried passengers who had lots of cash. The south tended to have a more open attitude towards gaming, reflecting the Spanish, French, and early Virginian traditions.7 New Orleans became the capital for gambling.

Gambling establishments were started in the river towns and were popular haunts for both travelers and professional gamblers. These gamblers preyed upon these cash-laden travelers who were, “Seduced by the bright prospects of their business deals as well as by the transience of the river frontier…”8 These professional gamblers, also known as sharps or sharpers, generally were dishonest and often turned to confidence games and cheating to make money.

During the 1830’s, the actions of the professional gamblers came under growing scrutiny and southern settlers turned against the professional gambler. The professional gamblers were blamed for limiting economic growth, interfering with business, endangering the streets, committing numerous crimes, and debasing the morality of the society. Vigilantism was one method by which the anti-professional gambler sentiment manifested itself. Groups of citizens organized to push the gamblers out of the South.

In 1835, a vigilante group lynched five cardsharps in Mississippi. Professional gamblers moved from the town into the riverboats. Lynching proved to be a successful policy option for reducing the presence of professional gamblers. In contrast to the river boat casinos of today, the old-time river boats were not floating casinos. Gambling occurred informally among the passengers. The period between 1840 and 1860 represented the glory days of the flashy riverboat gambler. The professional gamblers also moved to California, a history we cover in the next section.

The First Wave of Legal Gambling Draws to an End. During the early 1800’s, gambling came under increasing attack. There was always a group opposing gambling on moral grounds. This opposition was largely based on religious beliefs.9 The flames of opposition were fanned, however, by the prevalence of scandals and the belief that the poor were being targeted, especially by lotteries. This opposition drew strength from the larger climate of social reform. Issues such as temperance, women’s rights, educational reform, prison reform, and abolition of slavery were on the minds of many. Although there was strong sentiment to avoid interference with market forces, there was a countervailing view that people should behave in a virtuous way and that meant no gambling.10

The attack against gambling was focused particularly on lotteries because it represented a form of wagering that was offensive to both the moral sensibilities of reformers, and the Jacksonian resentment toward privilege.11 The exclusive charters granted to lottery operations were examples of this form of privilege. Ironically, President Jackson was an inveterate gambler12 and had such a history of problems that he must be viewed as a likely addictive or compulsive gambler. His gambling was well-known but tended to be seen as the behavior of a gentleman, hence he was reserved the disapprobation held for commercial gamblers.

Lottery Scandals Led to Gambling Prohibition. As noted earlier, lottery for the beautification of the nation’s capital ended in scandal with the operators absconding with the proceeds. This incident illustrated the problems with the lotteries of that time as many were crooked. Increasing evidence of fraud and dishonesty in the operations of lotteries added to the opposition.13 An additional argument was that they corrupted the free press and made them captive to their huge demand for advertising.14

The antilottery forces fought against lotteries and prevailed. In 1833 Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts put an end to state authorized lotteries. By 1840, most states had banned lotteries. By 1860, only Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky still allowed state-authorized lotteries. Nevertheless, the tickets of these few states were shipped around the country by mail or smugglers. The prohibition also led to the creation of illegal lotteries.

The demise of the riverboat gambler had more to do with circumstance than direct action by the people. Emergence of railroads and the outbreak of the Civil War were the precipitating factors. Travel by steamboats declined as railroads started to supplant steamboats as the favored method of transportation. Trains were more reliable and were faster than the riverboats. The Civil War interrupted virtually all river travel and abruptly diminished gambling in that area.

The end of the first wave did not result in an end to all legal gambling. The prohibition was selective in terms of type of gambling and location. The frontier areas, California included, saw a great deal of gambling after the end of the first wave. Because of the wholesale fraud, lotteries were targeted for prohibition, but gambling in posh clubs were still legal in New York. Horse racing survived the end of the first wave relatively unscathed.

It was also during this time that the Grimaldis sold a concession for gaming in an attempt to keep their principality, Monaco, from going bankrupt. Monte Carlo was opened in 1858 by gambling operators who had been forced to leave Hamburg, Germany after popular opinion turned against gambling. The public disfavor in Germany occurred because of the charge that legalized gaming was turning the city into a nest of paupers.

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