Last night a guy asked me where I was from, and I told him New Hampshire. His response was, “Oh, is that a commonwealth?”
I said no, but then remembered some signs I’ve seen on the freeway saying that Massachusetts was a commonwealth. He was under the impression that it meant something other than statehood, but I assured him that Massachusetts was indeed a state and its designation as a commonwealth was secondary.
It still made me curious, so here’s what I found out from the ever-useful Wikipedia.
Four states in the United States officially designate themselves “commonwealths”: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In these cases, this is merely a name and has no constitutional impact. They thus emphasize that they have a “government based on the common consent of the people”, instead of a government legitimized through their earlier Royal Colony status that was derived from the King of England. This transition occurred in 1776, when the need arose to express a change in their legal status consistent with the Revolutionary War. Kentucky, at this time, was but a county of Virginia, but chose to retain the Commonwealth descriptor when it became a separate state. While the term “commonwealth” has the same legal and economic meaning as “state,” the four regions that chose to designate themselves commonwealths probably did so as a reference to the earlier Commonwealth period in England which ended in 1660, when that nation was not ruled by a king.