what is a commonwealth

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.


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  1. It had never occurred to me to question as to why some places describe themselves as a “commonwealth” and others do not. This was a fun read.

    Comment by danithew on September 5, 2005 @ 9:32 am
  2. Did you raise your fist in the air after that and shout “LIVE FREE OR DIE!”?

    Comment by NeeNee on September 10, 2005 @ 11:17 pm
  3. I didn’t, but now that you mention it, I really should have.

    Comment by dan on September 11, 2005 @ 2:24 pm
  4. Commonwealths rock! They are much cooler than states!

    Comment by Stephen Urich on September 11, 2005 @ 10:50 pm
  5. You win for ‘most educational blog of the day’, and I’ve read a bunch of them today, cause I’m waiting for my ride, and I’m bored. Thanks.

    Comment by The Mighty Tim on October 20, 2005 @ 5:58 pm
  6. Thank you so much. I am enlightened. And I thought I knew everything. Yea. Ha! Ha! Ha! PA and VA are my favorite states to visit so far. I have driven through NH on the way to Maine. It was the best snow I had ever played in.

    Comment by Crisy on October 30, 2005 @ 9:56 am
  7. Great info., just moved to Virginia from Texas; have heard Virginia referred to as a Commonwealth state since I moved here, but no one could explain to me what this meant or how it differed from other states. Thanks for the clarification on this. Now I know what to tell other people who as me the same question, and I will actually have an educated answer for them.

    Comment by Mike on January 10, 2006 @ 7:46 am
  8. You’re very welcome. I’m glad it was useful.

    Comment by dan on January 10, 2006 @ 10:03 am
  9. Thanks for the info it is great to know. It would also be great if Kentucky was acually ruled by the people but such is not the case. It is ruled by dirty politicians and law like I’m sure many other places are as well.

    Comment by mary on April 1, 2006 @ 3:58 pm
  10. I guess it a state

    Comment by michellesimer on January 29, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

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