The Better Sort

In 1831, upper-crust Pennsylvanians did the math on the state lottery.

A ticket  for the Revolutionary War-era U.S. lottery.Say what you will about elitists. Those people—the “better sort,” as they once liked to call themselves—got things done.

In the 19th century, when the region’s rich, educated and well-born citizens noticed that Pennsylvania’s prisons were squalid, they caucused at the home of Benjamin Franklin. Then, as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, they convinced the state to build the first penitentiary intended to reform criminals through solitary confinement. Elitists also built hospitals, founded universities and accomplished the sort of civic improvements that made Philadelphia the “Athens of America.”

Abolition of the lottery? That’s less remembered. But it was a significant accomplishment for leaders like Job R. Tyson of Montgomery County, who’d fought lotteries for decades. The legislature finally acted in 1831, after lottery opponents discovered that a game intended to fund a canal connecting the Schuylkill and Susquehanna rivers had paid out in prizes 147 times what it had delivered in actual construction money.

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Tyson & Co. would undoubtedly be impressed by our modern lottery—which collects $3 billion to deliver $1 billion to the state treasury—but not in a good way. (And the casinos? Let’s not go there.)

“How shall we ensure to future generations an exemption from this moral scourge?” Tyson wrote in an 1833 pamphlet in which he proposed that his allies proceed from success at the state level to national abolition of lotteries by amending the U.S. Constitution. Until then, he said, “It will devolve upon good citizens to protect, by their vigilance and zeal, the rights of morality from insult, and existing laws from violation.”

Lottery opponents printed and distributed 5,000 copies of Tyson’s pamphlet, which proved influential in the national debate. By 1860, lotteries were banned in every state.

Born in Philadelphia, Tyson was a sixth-generation Quaker whose family followed the conservative orthodox faction. He attended Friends schools, taught for a while at Hamburg, and then studied law. By the 1850s, he was a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Tyson’s career and family connections put him in a position—and, perhaps, provided an obligation—to be active in civic affairs. He was, after all, the son-in-law of Thomas Pym Cope, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent civic reformers. It was Cope who helped Philadelphia acquire the first pieces of what became Fairmount Park, largely to prevent development along the Schuylkill that would threaten its water supply.

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Tyson became a director of the Philadelphia public schools. He also served on the board of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, a precursor to the Moore College of Art & Design, when such a career was deemed acceptable for unmarried females who needed to support themselves. He was an early member, supporter and vice president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

As a member of the Prison Society, Tyson was a vocal advocate for construction of Eastern State Penitentiary. In an 1831 speech, he argued that the facility would be worth its extra cost. “The problem of expense, in my opinion, can only be truly solved by that which is most likely to reform [criminals],” said Tyson. “On the score of cost, therefore—if that, indeed, be an object in a work of this magnitude—the solitary [confinement] plan recommends itself.”

Tyson wrote well and quickly, turning out speeches and pamphlets on local history, the state of the Indian tribes, Philadelphia’s business climate, and the issue of slavery. He leaned to the conservative side of the anti-slavery movement, favoring colonization over abolition.

Elected to the 34th Congress, Tyson vigorously defended the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, which abolitionists described as sops to slaveholders. “What is the duty of those northern states which have abolished their respective systems of domestic servitude?” asked Tyson in an 1857 speech on the House floor. “Ought they not, in short, to deliver back to their southern brethren fugitives from labor and service as the Constitution enjoins, and as they agreed to do in becoming parties to that solemn instrument of government?”

(Abolitionists who risked war or who encouraged slaves to disobey or flee, said Tyson, “ought to be subjected to the moral treatment of lunatic asylums.”)

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A newspaper advertisement for the Rhode Island lottery, operated by the same vendor that ran the shady Union Canal Lottery.Gradual emancipationists like Tyson believed that masses of free African-Americans would be unable to care for themselves and remain vulnerable to white bigotry. They insisted that the institution should be supported until blacks could be colonized elsewhere or slowly weaned from bondage.

Tyson brought the same paternalism to the lottery issue.

Lotteries in the early 19th century were not operated by the state itself. Instead, lotteries were “authorized” by the legislature if it felt the purpose worthwhile. Most organizations granted a lottery, then subcontracted their operation to private, for-profit lottery managers.

Tyson traced the history of lotteries to the Romans, then to France and, in the mid-16th century, to England, from which it passed to its American colonies. That in itself was a good argument against lotteries, he insisted, pointing to a 1762 ban on all lotteries except those licensed by Great Britain.

“This fact informs us what is by no means unimportant,” wrote Tyson, “that the lottery is a weed which is not indigenous to this soil; that it did not spring up in this country, the result of necessity or the dictate of pecuniary expediency.”

Regardless of their origins, lotteries were common in the Colonial and early Federal eras. In 1748, Franklin organized a lottery to buy cannons and build an artillery battery on the Delaware River near Old Swede’s Church. A few years later, he organized additional lotteries to fund construction of the Christ Church steeple, along with its clock and bells. Other lotteries paved streets and benefited numerous local churches.

As both a printer and the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin was a lottery enthusiast for obvious reasons.

“Philadelphia printers turned out thousands of tickets and acted as brokers in selling them,” wrote historian Mary D. Turnbull. “Lotteries furnished important news for the papers. The wheels might be advertised as ‘exceedingly rich’ or drawings postponed until all tickets were sold. Pennsylvanians eagerly followed the progress and drawings of their lotteries.”

Quakers were among the few religious groups to spurn lotteries, making any involvement by members—even buying a ticket—grounds for expulsion. And while Quakers had little public clout, they were skilled at influencing political leaders. One was U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, whose 1807 Life of Washington echoed Quaker thinking in its description of lotteries.

“It was a facile way of raising money when it could not be done by direct tax,” he wrote. “The burden was self-imposed, and the contributor seemed beneficent, when, in truth, he was selfish.”

By the 1820s, though, Americans had begun to doubt that gambling could be conducted honestly. Partly, it was the reformist mood of the times. Gambling opponents gathered and circulated tragic stories: Fathers stole from employers, then abandoned their families when discovered; wives stole from husbands, becoming prostitutes to replace the money.

One account described a southern minister who came north to solicit money to build a church. Given $900, he spent it on lottery tickets, lost and abandoned his ministry. Next, he went into crime, including “the grossest act that can stigmatize the character of man” (the account did not specify what) and, in October 1830, was in Eastern State Penitentiary.

Reformers also regretted that most ticket buyers seemed to be poor and uneducated. Tyson’s book described them as porters, chimney sweeps, hostlers, kitchen girls, apprentices and clerks. “These unprotected beings are importuned in the streets by some emissary of a lottery office,” he wrote. “Every art which experience has suggested and ingenuity can devise is applied for the purpose of deceiving the credulous and alluring the unwary.”

According to Tyson, prizes were not represented as a remote possibility but were “promised.”

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A portion of the Union Canal, as it looks today.A voluntary tax? Tyson dismissed the concept. Lottery fans play to win, he noted, not to pay “taxes.” Taxes—true taxes—were inherently involuntary, but could at least be fairly assessed “commensurate with [the citizen’s] pecuniary ability.”

Gambling also suffered from becoming less of a sociable, back-room activity among friends and more of a business. Stories about crooked brokers and gambling-related disturbances convinced Pennsylvania legislators to ban lotteries in 1805. Existing ones were grandfathered, and therefore immune to the ban.

What it took to finally exterminate lotteries were several large scandals. In Boston, lottery brokers were accused of selling $1 million worth of fictitious tickets. In Maine, an 1835 audit revealed that, of $16 million collected by one lottery, more than $10 million had gone to its private managers.

But the biggest scandal involved the Union Canal Lottery. Authorized in 1795, it had been renewed several times because it (allegedly) funded an important public work. But its tickets had never sold well, in part because there was so much competition. Officially, tickets for out-of-state lotteries could not be sold in Pennsylvania. But the law was ignored.

According to Tyson, there were three lottery offices in Philadelphia in 1809, 60 in 1827, and 177 in 1831. In 1833, there were more than 200 offices, selling tickets for 420 different lotteries. All were illegal.

With the local market glutted, the canal lottery turned to a New York manager, Yates & McIntyre, which sold tickets nationally through agents. But oversight was poor and, according to some accounts, some agents had “sticky” fingers. Between 1811 and 1833, a report to the legislature showed the Union Canal Lottery had sold $33 million worth of tickets and returned about 6 percent—roughly $225,000—to the canal company.

By then, the canal was finished. Soon after, so was the lottery.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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