Which States Are Commonwealths?

The flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The term commonwealth refers to a group of people organized politically under one government and also a group of nations that have similar objectives and interests. The British Commonwealth is an organization comprising 53 states, which were at one time under the rule of the British Empire. In the United States, four states: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are commonwealth states. These states share a strong influence of the English common law, having been British Colonies either in part or entirely before 1776. The usage of the term commonwealth by the four states in the US is symbolical emphasizing a “government based on the common consent of the people.”


After gaining independence from the British, Virginia adopted its first constitution on June 29, 1776, in which the name “Commonwealth of Virginia” appeared. Virginia’s admission to Union was on June 25, 1788. Other references to the term commonwealth in the state include the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who keeps the Seal of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth’s Attorney, a title for local prosecutors in the state’s subdivisions. In Richmond, there is a state university called Virginia Commonwealth University. Virginia has some nicknames including Old Dominion for being the first colonial possession of the British, and Mother of Presidents for being the home of eight presidents of the United States.


Kentucky was part of the Commonwealth of Virginia before it became a state on June 1, 1792. Previously, on September 28, 1786, a petition by Kentucky County residents sought permission from the Virginia legislature, to become an independent state using the name “Commonwealth of Kentucky,” which Virginia approved on December 18, 1789. Citizen petitions from 1786 to 1792 used the commonwealth term. Kentucky has Commonwealth’s Attorney similar to Virginia. The term commonwealth in Kentucky emphasizes the state as governed for the welfare of the residents. Kentucky holds its elections for state officials in the years preceding the national Presidential elections, which are odd-numbered similar to Mississippi, Virginia, Louisiana, and New Jersey.


In the New England region, Massachusetts ranks as the most populous state. It gained admission to Union on February 6, 1788. The state’s legislature rejected the first draft of Massachusetts Constitution, which named it as “State of Massachusetts Bay.” John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress and the United States’ second president, may have chosen the name “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” in 1780, on the second draft of the Massachusetts Constitution. At the time, the Commonwealth term implied a republic. Massachusetts occasionally uses the term “state” officially, for instance in, Massachusetts State House and Massachusetts State Police.


Pennsylvania gained admission to the Union as the second state on December 12, 1787, after ratifying the Constitution of the United States. On its first constitution of 1776, the terms “Commonwealth” and “State” refer to Pennsylvania. Usage of the Commonwealth term is on the official who presides over the Department of State of Pennsylvania, the Secretary of the Commonwealth. An intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania has the name “Commonwealth Court.” However, the Seal of Pennsylvania uses the term State as opposed to Commonwealth.

Other Commonwealth References In The US

The US has two territories referred to as commonwealths, which are the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. The two are not states of the US and are self-governed. In the United States, the Vermont Constitution uses the terms “commonwealth” and “state” interchangeably. One of the articles of the Constitution of Delaware uses the term commonwealth.


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