What Does It Mean If a State is a Commonwealth?

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From having worked in Virginia government for the better part of a decade, I am routinely asked and overhear people talking about Virginia being “a Commonwealth”.

On occasion, I even hear people say something to the impact of, “Well that law is only like that” or “this thing is only done this way because this state is a Commonwealth,” they say this, like there is an elementary understanding that if a state is a Commonwealth, then there must be some underlying power or requirement for such a government to further complicate things above and beyond what the typical state office already seems perfectly suited at doing on their own.

But is there any truth to this often repeated phrase? Do the four US States that have “Commonwealth” in their official names (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) enjoy certain powers that have escaped the other 46 shareholders of the Union or this merely a myth, perpetrated by individuals mad at their local DMV office?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is very simple and rather boring. No.

There is absolutely nothing different concerning the four states that have Commonwealth in their title than any other state in the Union, in fact, Article IV of the US Constitution orders that all states be admitted into the Union on equal footing.

The word “commonwealth” is an Old English term used to describe a government that was created for the common good of the people and one that has obtained its authority from the common consent of the people, as opposed to one legitimized through their earlier colonial status that was derived from the British crown.

Thus, not long after declaring their independence from the British Crown, the former colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia declared themselves to be Commonwealths, or governments created to protect the “wealth” (property) of the common man rather than the Crown.

In addition to these three former colonies, the original constitutions of Vermont and Delaware also referred to their government as a Commonwealth.

In September 1786, residents of Kentucky County, Virginia, began petitioning the Commonwealth of Virginia’s General Assembly to allow them to break away from the Richmond government and form their own “free and independent state.”

After much debate, the legislature of Virginia ultimately agreed to allow the far western county to break away and following Congressional approval the Bluegrass State was formed.

On June 1, 1792, Kentucky County officially became a state and as a nod of appreciation to their mother state for allowing them to break away, they chose the name “Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is the only state outside of the original thirteen that uses commonwealth in its name.

So the next time you hear someone blaming some outrageous law on the fact that said state is a Commonwealth, you can smile politely, while taking solace in the fact that the individual has absolutely no clue what they’re talking about!

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