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Color photograph of a white building with white columns sitting atop a green hill in Virginia
Virginia Capitol. Photo by Flickr user Mike Fonseca. Sep. 27, 2018. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

What’s in a Name? The Four U.S. States That Are Technically Commonwealths

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The following is a guest post by Sarah Friedman, a former Presidential Management Fellow working with the Public Services Division at the Law Library of Congress. She previously authored The Legal History of the Presidential Management Fellows Program and Hansberry v. Lee: The Supreme Court Case that Influenced the Play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all share the distinction of being known as commonwealths. Does this name come with any unique attributes that set these four states apart from the rest? In short, no, there is no difference between these commonwealths and the other 46 U.S. states. By examining their state constitutional histories, however, we can learn why these states (or commonwealths) may have officially adopted this name.

During the English Civil War, England became a commonwealth after the office of the King and the House of Lords were abolished in 1649. According to the Hornbook of Virginia History, Virginia also adopted the commonwealth designation until it became a royal colony again in 1660 when the English monarchy was re-established. The term was reintroduced when Virginia adopted its constitution on June 29, 1776. The Hornbook notes that this designation was given “most likely to emphasize that Virginia’s new government was based upon the sovereignty of the people united for the common good, or common weal” (p. 88). Pennsylvania followed Virginia, also using the official designation of commonwealth when it adopted its constitution a short time later in September 1776.

A color photo of the dome at Pennsylvania's state capitol, with green and white brick designs on the dome and a gold statue on top of the dome's cupola.
The gilded brass “Commonwealth” statue by Roland Hinton Perry stands atop the lantern house of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Carol Highsmith, photographer. June 2, 2019. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.58230.

Massachusetts was the next commonwealth to adopt its constitution, drafted by John Adams, in 1780. According to the official website of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Adams may have chosen the word commonwealth, which was preferred by some political writers and may have carried “some anti-monarchial sentiment,” to emphasize that the state was a “representative democracy.”

Photograph shows composite portraits of the Representatives of Massachusetts in 1901. All portraits are identified, the central portrait shows "Hon. J. Myers, Speaker". Print also includes insets of the House building, interior views of "Doric Hall" and "Memorial Hall," and the Beacon Monument.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts House of Representatives. Notman Photo Co., photographer. 1901. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37486.

At first glance, Kentucky, the last state to call itself a commonwealth, appears to be an outlier among the four commonwealths. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, Kentucky was not one of the original thirteen colonies. However, looking at Kentucky’s connections to the other commonwealth states helps to explain why it may have adopted the commonwealth moniker. Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1792 when Virginia ceded the district of Kentucky to the United States. Kentucky’s first constitution was also based on Pennsylvania’s 1790 Constitution. Curiously, even though Kentucky first adopted its constitution in 1792, it was the state’s fourth constitution, adopted in 1891, that formally declared in the preamble that the official name would be “The Commonwealth of Kentucky.” Earlier constitutions used state and commonwealth interchangeably throughout the documents, but the preambles of the 1792, 1799, and 1850 constitutions referred to the “State of Kentucky.”

An enlarged close-up of the Kentucky state seal, with two individuals shaking hands, surrounded by the phrase "Commonwealth of Kentucky: United we stand, divided we fall."
Commonwealth of Kentucky. Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore. Aug. 7, 2010. Used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ultimately, these four states are commonwealths because their constitutional drafters declared they were. The commonwealth title does not confer any special legal significance, but the word highlights that the states’ governments were intended to serve the well-being of the people.

For more information about the constitutional history of the four U.S. commonwealths, see the following selected online resources:

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Comments (4)

  1. According to Wikipedia: “All four (states of the U.S.) were part of Great Britain’s possessions along the Atlantic coast of North America prior to the American Revolution.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth

  2. The name ‘Commonwealth’ informs, inspires, motivates and encourages. It constantly reminds one of common good or commonweal. Public welfare is motto of the commonwealth.

  3. wow really helpful

  4. I’m glad to know this because I have not understood why Virginia was a commmonwealth,

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