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What is a Commonwealth?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Numerous definitions can be applied to the term commonwealth. In its loosest form, the term means for the common or public good, and is often a state formed for the common good of the people. It can also apply to a group of nations that have a loose alliance for the good of all members of each nation.

Several US states have commonwealth designation. These are Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. The designation was important as these states originally defined their governance in direct opposition to the governance of the British Empire. The designation now lacks meaning and has merely been retained as a salute to the past history of rebellion that freed the US from British rule.

Some US territories are also organized as commonwealths. These territories, like Puerto Rico, are not entitled to the same rights and benefits as recognized states. For example, Puerto Rico’s designation as a commonwealth implies an ongoing relationship with the US, but does not imply statehood.

One of the largest is the Commonwealth of Nations, nations formerly part of the British Empire. This group is headed by Queen Elizabeth II and implies fellowship, but not rule, over former British territories like New Zealand and Canada. The Commonwealth of Nations includes 53 nations, each with their own self-governance.

Another large commonwealth is the alliance of over 10 countries formerly belonging to the USSR. These ties can often help smaller countries gain larger political power because of the unifying force of the group. The commonwealth of this type, however, does not hold the same type of political power as, for example, the United Nations. But those countries belonging to the United Nations may gain strength by voting together for those issues which are likely to impact them most.

A commonwealth does not necessarily imply the same sort of government. Alliances connecting nations may be composed of monarchies, democracies and socialist states. Most often, the association is thought of as somewhat democratic or republic in principal, with a greater value on individual rights of people, and public influence in the political process.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon317718 — On Feb 04, 2013

What is the commonwealth and why do we belong?

By anon303145 — On Nov 13, 2012

The Commonwealth means that the people have more say so about laws and other things of that nature more so than the states. We are a land, not a state. So it bothers me that we have no rights to our own freedom and many other things in this country.

Like vaccine laws for example; the Commonwealth should not have to abide by those laws. We should have our own rights about how to get ourselves as well as our children vaccinated. I feel others should have the same rights, Commonwealth or not. We have hardly any rights anymore in our country.

By anon150362 — On Feb 07, 2011

I just looked up the term and found-out that some contracts are still commonwealth, and was wondering if this could hamper business among states. And why some people,would live in the states that are selfish in the dictation of business and not care about the people like Ohio.

By anon133440 — On Dec 10, 2010

I don't understand why the law is so much different in the commonwealth than it is in other states. The law is about money and not the people. The law will lock you up for here say, and leave you in prison for years and years. What person on this earth can do 200 years in prison? That is what the commonwealth is all about. If I could move I would move from the commonwealth and never look back.

By anon131560 — On Dec 02, 2010

I also live in a commonwealth state and it's not Virginia; it's Ky and what the lady is saying about in her words so-called legal system. I know where she's coming from, the judges don't treat anyone the same. the jail systems stink and the law isn't for the people, but for politics and money. If you don't think so, have someone in your family get involved in the legal system and see how much it takes out of you.

By anon109623 — On Sep 08, 2010

I just came back from vacation in VA and I must say it was totally different. I live in TN, which is not a commonwealth and I definitely could tell the difference. The police are everywhere. I'm sure there isn't any crime because they are around too much for anyone to do anything wrong. It gave me a sense of uneasiness and I was very uncomfortable while there. The nightlife stinks and the people act weird. VA is definitely not a place I would ever consider living. It's just not for me.

By anon101331 — On Aug 02, 2010

anon41543, I'm trying to figure out if you hate or love Va. I'm also from Va. but now reside in Nevada. I am planning on returning to a state that cares about the common folk (i.e. commonwealth). Don't blame the magistrate because you can't get along with your daughter. Maybe the problem is you!

By anon41543 — On Aug 15, 2009

I have always lived in VA., 53 years., and believe me, there is a *big* difference, especially in the so-called legal system. Just get involved in it, and you will see what I mean. We have magistrates that will have you arrested by just listening to someone else's word, never an investigation by police. All someone has to do is go to a magistrate and say that you hit them, cursed them, gave them the finger, etc. I guess you see what I am talking about. Stealing a dog is a felony, which can put you in prison for about 10 years. I had my grandkids' dog, and my daughter was mad at me, so I was accused of dognapping. There are many more examples of what a commonwealth can and does do. I would *never* move to a commonwealth, and I do plan on moving away from this one to a normal state, where things do get investigated, hopefully, and you don't have to trust your life to a magistrate who always believes what the other person says, because a police investigation would just be too much trouble. In fact, I called Washington D.C. this week about another problem I have caused by this great state, and when the man answered, and I told him that I live in Virginia, he said that's a Commonwealth isn't it? Then he groaned when I said yes. Think about the Native Americans, and Virginia still doesn't want to recognize them as our first Americans. We have produced some great presidents; it's a shame that no one abides by the Constitution anymore. Just move to Virginia and you will see.

By anon35175 — On Jul 02, 2009

In a Commonwealth, it still belongs to the people of that origin, and to be a state it belongs to the government and has to abide by all the federal laws and indiviual taxes instead of have a larger voice.

That is how I have been told by my family.

By anon33336 — On Jun 04, 2009

For truly broad informational flow, might I suggest the inclusion of the Commonwealth of American Indians? Theirs is the original democracy; a fact many in the world choose to ignore. - Just Being American.

By anon17984 — On Sep 12, 2008

Mexicana I have to agree I live in Virginia and people complain about living in a commonwealth but i don't see the disadvantage. Bevlyn

By mexicana — On Apr 28, 2008

I have always wondered why some states are called commonwealths and others are just states. I still don't really understand it though...

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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