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“Putting to Hazard a Certainty”: Lotteries and the Romance of Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England

From: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture
Volume 40, 2011
pp. 179-200 | 10.1353/sec.2011.0003

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In London, on January 6, 1662 (n. s.) Charles II opened the first Epiphany revels of the Restoration celebrating the final night of an especially festive Christmas season “by throwing the Dice himselfe, in the Privy Chamber, where a table was set on purpose, & lost his 100 pounds.”1 The king’s throne was secure, the Cavalier Parliament was seated, and the serious gambling could begin: “the Ladys also plaied very deepe,” diarist John Evelyn recorded, and “I came away when the Duke of Ormond had won about 1000 pounds & left them still at passage, Cards, &c: at other Tables, both there and at the Groome-porters.”2 This gambling scene represents a significant nexus in economic history, where archaic symbolic expenditure meets and indeed inspires modern capitalism, for as I shall discuss in this essay, the same groom-porter who was responsible for overseeing the gambling at the royal residences also introduced the lottery-loans that initiated the National Debt and thus modern finance capitalism.

In scholarship on the English Financial Revolution, especially in work by literary scholars, the South Sea Bubble receives significant attention.3 This scholarship highlights the prominent role of irrational speculation in the early days of finance capitalism. Catherine Ingrassia notes that “imagination and fantasy, unleashed emotions, and unregulated passions . . . were seen as driving the engines of Exchange Alley.”4 As Laura Brown puts it, “the modern legacy of this period is not the rationalized system of capitalist exchange, but the flights of fancy and credulity of the free market and stock speculation.”5 I concur with these readings of the economic irrationality revealed by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, but I hope to enrich our understanding of the early decades of the Financial Revolution by examining a financial instrument that has received much less attention, at least from literary scholars with interests in financial and economic history: the lottery. I focus on the lottery to show the deep foundations of the Financial Revolution in gambling. While contemporaneous critics of the South Sea scheme compared its frenzied investors to frivolous gamblers, the origins of the National Debt in lotteries reveals this critique to be not merely an analogy but literally true: the founding instruments of the National Debt were lotteries, and the South Sea scheme was developed to relieve the government’s debt burden generated by these lotteries. Attention to the origins of the National Debt in lotteries contradicts Georges Bataille’s reading of the transition from pre-capitalism to capitalism proper as a desacralization of the economy in favor of a proto-bourgeois ethic of work and accumulation, indicating instead the persistence of gambling in capitalism.6

The persistence of gambling in capitalism indicates an economy that is built not on rational calculation but on romance. The gambler practices a mode of engaging with the world that we can call romance, a mode that, with rhythms of repetition that promise control, celebrates the chance incalculable event, the heroic achievement against all odds, the lucky break, the unpredictable outcome, what Northrop Frye calls “the wish-fulfillment dream.”7 Because novels take as their unique mandate the representation of contemporary socio-economic life, they become an important site for examining the significance of an economy built on the romance of gambling. Eighteenth-century English novelists use gambling figures to explore the tension between chance and control that is both a feature of gambling-inspired capitalism and an animating formal concern of novels as the new genre develops. As novels flourish in the markets generated by lottery-inspired capitalism, gambling characters offer novelists opportunities to interrogate both the role of gambling within the capital economy as well the broader romance of chance within the fictional economies of novelistic plots. In this essay I examine the ways that Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753) and Frances Brooke’s The Excursion (1777) expose the gambling-inspired economy even as their plots depend on the same romance of chance that characterizes gambling. Both novels ultimately depict improbable, long-odds solutions to the financial challenges of life in the transforming economy, thus mystifying the very economy they critique.

Lotteries and the Romance of the National Debt

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