A History of Gambling Laws in the South

Early efforts to control gaming in the southern colonies aimed at the ‘nuisances’ arising from gambling rather than at gaming itself.

The earliest enactments of southern colonial legislatures, preoccupied as they were with the more pressing problems of frontier defense and settlement, dealt with gambling only when activities associated with it threatened to disrupt the social order.

Thus, the first statutes passed concerned cheating, fighting, or the disruption of the economy caused by large gaming losses.

These laws had the effect of promoting hard work and thrift among colonists, who, in the early years, were more interested in gold (metallic or in the form of tobacco) than in producing sufficient food to support the colony.

But unlike the laws in Massachusetts, these laws did not embody a work ethic as such.

The earliest enactments of these legislatures generally involved the explicit reception of the Statute of Anne, which declared gambling transactions to be unenforceable and gave a loser of over 10 pounds a right to recover his losses, and passage of local registration criminalizing various disruptive associated with gambling.

The landed gentry controlled politics during the colonial period, and they saw no reason to criminalize the very pleasures that represented an honored part of their lifestyle.

More important, no countervailing public movement opposed to gambling, and so no token gestures toward anti-gambling feeling were made.

Even Virginia, which prohibited public gambling, did not really strike a blow at the way of life of the tidewater aristocrats; if anything, prohibitions of public gaming struck at the pleasure of the poor, who, unlike the rich, did not have space in their own houses for large-scale gambling.

Thus, as the South entered the Revolution, gambling was not condemned by the masses, but was celebrated by the few part of the ‘good life’.

To the degree that the law concerned itself with gambling, as in England, issues of public order and the maintenance of economic stability were of paramount concern.

One early Delaware law, attempting to regularize the chaotic lottery system that had sprung up in the state, talked around the point but did not ban all lotteries.

South Carolina effectively banned all lotteries in 1762; and Virginia and Georgia followed.

The American Revolution joined three different classes from three different areas from New England; great landowners from the South, particularly Virginia; and frontiersmen, present in most of the colonies, who saw the Revolution not only as an effort to break away from Britain but as a democratic uprising against the social order of many of the colonies themselves.

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