Sin Cities on a Hill

How legalized gambling moved from the Strip to Main Street.

Frank Wolf, a 13-term Republican congressman from Virginia, is angry at President Bush, at Republicans in general, and at his fellow mainline Presbyterians. None of them, he charges, is doing enough to combat the proliferation of state-sanctioned gambling in America. As Wolf delivers his speech at the annual conference of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, the 200 or so concerned citizens in the audience murmur their assent.

Outside the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, rain is pouring in nearly biblical quantities. Inside, Wolf is accusing gambling of "tearing families apart." It's exploiting the poor, he says. Preying on the elderly. Corrupting the young. Unduly influencing elected officials. As he speaks, he punches at the air with his right fist. He's exasperated by President Bush's refusal to place a moratorium on the expansion of Indian gambling. He's disgusted by once-honorable D.C. law firms that proudly list gambling interests among their clients. He can't believe that the casinos destroyed by Hurricane Katrina may qualify for millions of dollars in tax breaks as part of the Bush administration's plan to spur redevelopment on the Gulf Coast.

Wolf isn't telling the people assembled here anything they don't already know, but they hang on his words nonetheless. He's a congressman, after all, and he gets it. He believes, like they believe, that legalized gambling, pushed on the public by cash-starved states, is a major threat to America.

Outside this room, that belief is less common. Nearly a decade ago, Congress funded the National Gambling Impact Study Commission to determine the economic and social consequences of legal gambling, and in 1999, after two years of study, the commission concluded that it was time "to consider a pause in the expansion of gambling." And perhaps for a moment somewhere, such a pause was considered. But only for a moment. Then four more states introduced lotteries, and the number of Indian casinos in the country rose from around 160 to approximately 400. Annual visits to commercial casinos nearly doubled, jumping from 162.4 million in 1999 to 319 million in 2004. Seventeen U.S. casino markets, covering every region of the country, recorded more than $500 million in gross gaming revenues. Today Utah and Hawaii are the only states where no form of gambling is legal.

Perhaps even more significant than the sheer number of gambling outlets is our widespread cultural embrace, or at least acceptance, of the practice. Bookstore chains such as Borders stock glossy gambling magazines with titles like Deal, Bluff, Casino Player, and Strictly Slots. High-stakes poker is a nightly staple on cable TV. If that seems unremarkable, try to imagine an America where, every night on Bravo, you could tune into an hour-long series called Celebrity Gangbang Showdown.

The porn industry's growth during the last few decades has mirrored that of gambling, but porn retains its stigma. Gambling, by contrast, is widely seen as just another recreational opportunity, no more exotic than going to a football game or a rock concert. "What happens here stays here," the popular Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority commercials say. For the last 40 years, however, what happens in Vegas has actually been spreading to every corner of the country.

How exactly did legal, overt, domesticated gambling become a standard feature of Main Street? Today in America, it's actually easier to buy a lottery ticket than a Big Mac: There are more than 185,000 outlets where you can buy the former, only 13,700 that sell the latter. But does this mean the proliferation of legalized gambling has transformed us from productive, hard-working Puritans into incorrigible gluttons of chance? Or are we simply expressing appetites we've had all along?

A Nation of High Rollers

"Now we see," Wolf complains at the Sheraton, "as if our nation isn't saturated enough with gambling, a group of investors this spring has announced plans to try to open a casino two miles from historic Gettysburg." To desecrate such hallowed ground, Wolf implies, isn't just a lapse of good taste; it's a blight on our national honor.

Alas, in trying to protect history from gambling, you also have to protect history from history. As any contemporary gambling booster will tell you, Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was underwritten by a lottery conducted in London by the Virginia Company. That trend continued as the New World moved toward nationhood. With all 13 colonies establishing lotteries at one time or another, government-approved gambling was one of the original features of the landscape.

In the 1700s, newspapers regularly published the odds on local cockfighting matches. Harvard and other institutions of higher learning used lotteries to finance construction projects, as did numerous churches. Ben Franklin helped organize a lottery in 1746, and George Washington was—according to George Sullivan's 1972 history of lotteries, By Chance a Winner—a "frequent ticket buyer" who won land in one raffle, five pounds in a 1763 lottery, and 16 pounds in a 1766 drawing. Nearly three decades later, he was still playing: In 1793, when the District of Columbia sold 50,000 lottery tickets at $7 apiece to raise funds for federal buildings, Washington purchased tickets for himself and his friends.

Americans' enthusiasm for gambling didn't ebb in the 19th century. According to Henry Chafetz's 1960 book Play the Devil, combatants on both sides of the Civil War "were addicted to faro, poker, casino, euchre, monte, seven-up, and chuck-a-luck." Other accounts describe bored soldiers betting even on lice races. So Wolf and others who decry the Gettysburg casino effort are correct when they suggest that such a project would undermine the location's historic atmosphere: The developers have plans for 5,000 slot machines but have expressed no interest whatsoever in betting opportunities involving insects.

Of course, it's not just aspiring casino developers who are part of a long American tradition; gambling opponents are too. For almost 400 years, prudent, risk-averse critics have been predicting a gambling-induced meltdown. In 1624 the Virginia Assembly made it illegal for ministers to play dice or cards. In 1834, when most states permitted legal lotteries, reformers in Philadelphia branded the local manifestation a "poisonous exotic, whose noxious and rank luxuriance is pervading the land and blighting all our indigenous fruits, showing itself to be wholly unsuited and repugnant to the genius of American soil."

Some crooked operators actually lived up to such rhetoric. In one notable case, a lottery authorized by Massachusetts to pay for repairs to Plymouth Beach hadn't declared a winner after nine years of play. But corruption wasn't the only factor in efforts to eliminate the lottery. Social reform in general was in vogue, and ending the lottery became one more cause alongside abolition, women's suffrage, and temperance. And as the U.S. economy matured and diversified, mill owners, bankers, and storeowners lobbied for the demise of lotteries in the hopes that citizens would spend their money in a more productive fashion.

During the 1830s, 12 states banned most forms of the lottery. Southern states were slower to do so, and in 1868 Louisiana went against the grain, introducing a lottery to pay for reconstruction costs in the wake of the Civil War. Eventually, this would be the country's only legal lottery, and as such it enjoyed a popularity that extended to every state. But the Louisiana Lottery Company was eventually suppressed, fleeing for more hospitable shores in 1895—when it reinvented itself as the Honduras National Lottery—and folding completely a decade later.

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