Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
Stephen Conant was in serious trouble. He had lost everything, his home and business in Windsor, to a fire in January of 1800. By fall, he was desperate.
He threw himself on the mercy of the Vermont Legislature. In a letter to lawmakers, referring to himself in the third person, Conant asked them to “lighten with a parent’s hand those calamities which fortune has so recently heaped upon him and which without such aid must soon sink him to the ground.”
He didn’t want a handout. He wanted a special privilege – the right to run a lottery. And the benefactor of that sweepstake would be himself.
The request was nothing unusual. Since the first Vermont Legislature was seated in 1778, lawmakers had been besieged with requests for permission to run lotteries. Unauthorized gambling games were illegal.
But state-sanctioned lotteries were seen, at first, as the most charitable and civic-minded of ventures. The games typically benefited public-works projects, such as building bridges and roads, but they also raised capital for businessmen to start breweries and iron furnaces. And on occasion they benefited the unfortunate, like Conant.
(Other states instituted similar practices. Two decades after Conant’s request, Virginia instituted a lottery to benefit former President Thomas Jefferson, who was deeply in debt.)
Vermont’s first lottery was distinctly patriotic. The Legislature in 1779 approved raising $30,000 – a princely sum at the time – to help Vermont and its neighboring states pay for militia to defend against the British. Since most Vermonters were too cash strapped to pay a general tax, lawmakers opted to institute a lottery, since it was a strictly voluntary way for people to contribute.
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The catch with this first lottery was that winners wouldn’t be paid for two years, and they would be paid in paper currency, not hard cash, as in coins. In the meantime, the state government could use the money raised from lottery ticket sales. This wait-for-your-winnings provision killed any chance the game had of generating anything like the bonanza lawmakers envisioned. With the value of continental paper currency dropping steadily, few Vermonters were willing to wait while their dreamed-of winnings melted away.
The limited success of the first lottery did nothing to diminish the Legislature’s support of the games. Between 1779 and 1804, the Legislature approved 42 lotteries – only four states authorized more. (The count is not mine. It is the work of historian Philip Gardiner Nordell, who in the late 1960s, a decade before Vermont revived its sweepstakes system, studied the state’s early lotteries.)
For all its enthusiasm for lotteries, Vermont was late getting into the game. Rhode Island was the first colony to sanction a lottery, approving one in 1744 to build a bridge in Providence. Two years later, New York would hold a lottery to raise money to found King’s College, which would become Columbia University. The next year, Connecticut would do the same to benefit Yale.
Lotteries remained popular at the end of the 18th century. To a society that had just waged a revolution largely over taxes, it seemed a clever way to raise revenues.
Ironically, however, enthusiasm for the games made them less successful. People saw them as an easy way to raise money. Sweepstake managers found it increasingly hard to find buyers for their tickets as competing lotteries sprang up. Since the Legislature had given them no deadline to complete their lotteries, organizers regularly pushed back the date they would draw winners.
The 18th century sense of fairness also frustrated efforts to raise money. Roughly 85 percent of ticket revenues was returned in the form of prizes. Even if people saw their purchase of a ticket as a donation, they wanted a decent chance to make their money back.
Ultimately, many of the lotteries failed to meet their goals. In some cases, so little money was raised that managers scrapped the game, returning the money or the goods people had used to buy tickets.
The lottery failed to solve Stephen Conant’s problems. In his plea to the Legislature, he had originally estimated his fire losses at $4,000 to $5,000. But then either he got a new damage estimate, or he wanted to make his loss seem greater, because he scratched out the first figures and wrote in new ones: $6,000 to $7,000.
The Legislature perhaps saw through his scheme, or at least his scratch-outs, and granted him permission to raise $4,000 by lottery. His sweepstake raised only $600 before it was suspended after three years.
Then, during the 1820s, someone with a keen eye noticed that all the suspended lotteries weren’t, legally speaking, dead, just dormant, since the Legislature had never given managers a deadline to complete their games. The Charitable Lottery granted to Stephen Conant was resurrected and aptly renamed the Phoenix Lottery. The old White River Bridge Lottery, Killington Lottery and others were also reborn.
In 1825, the Legislature’s education committee suggested lotteries could help fund the state’s needy public school system, but the idea was defeated by the General Assembly.
The days of the lottery being seen as a public good were over. Like the nation, Vermont was experiencing the first waves of religious revivalism and lotteries were now viewed as anything but righteous.
Gov. Ezra Butler bemoaned the lotteries’ return in an 1826 speech. The sweepstakes could only harm “the principles of morality in Vermont,” he declared. But instead of banning them, the Legislature chose to regulate them out of existence, approving a $500 licensing fee for lotteries. When the managers proved willing to pay the fee, the Legislature raised it to $1,000, effectively snuffing out the games. Only in 1894 did the Legislature vote to ban lotteries.
Things stood that way until 1978, when Legislators, emboldened by strong public support in a referendum, approved a state lottery to benefit public schools.
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The bill landed on the desk of Gov. Richard Snelling, who hated the idea. Back in 1959, when the Legislature was considering legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horses, Snelling was a member of the House General Committee. His notes show his abhorrence of gambling.
“Is it worth the price?” he wrote atop his legal pad. “No,” he answered, “because …” And he proceeded to list his objections, which included that such gambling “encourages organized and heavy gambling – not just social betting” and that “pari-mutuel carries in its wake big gambler(s) and organized crime.”
Despite his objections, the Legislature voted to allow pari-mutuel betting.
So, now governor, Snelling was understandably dismayed to see the gambling issue re-emerge in 1978 when the Legislature approved a state lottery. Knowing that public opinion was against him, he wrote a constituent that he would sign the bill.
“It is not really appropriate for me to insist that I have my way by vetoing every piece of legislation with which I disagree,” Snelling wrote, then added, “In short, I think it is a bad idea whose time has come.”
However, he wouldn’t dignify the bill with a public signing. He had a more private place in mind. He is said to have signed it in the bathroom.