States that are commonwealths: What’s the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

Why Only 4 US States Are Called ‘Commonwealths’: Explainer

Why Only 4 US States Are Called ‘Commonwealths’: Explainer

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Boston, Massachusetts, the capital city of one of four «Commonwealth» states in the US.

Shutterstock/Rsphotograph

  • Only four US states have legal names that include the term Commonwealth: Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
  • Here’s the historical (and global) significance behind the label.  

Maybe you first came across the term on a US history test or while watching a documentary.

But have you ever stopped to ponder what the word «Commonwealth» really means and why it’s applied to some states and territories but not others?

The global and historical answer behind it might surprise you.

Commonwealth territories

Protesters march through San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2015.

Reuters/Alvin Baez

The question of commonwealths becomes a bit more complicated when we move beyond the continental United States to look at a few of its island territories.

The US has five major territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of these five, only two of them are considered commonwealths — the Northern Mariana Island and Puerto Rico.

Like their state counterparts, the use of the term commonwealth in the full titles of these territories does not affect their legal status.  

Though it legally has no significance, the title of «commonwealth» has come into question during disputes over the future of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory — namely, in the debate over whether the territory should remain as it is, become independent, or become a fully integrated US State.

Some supporters of Puerto Rico’s independence have supported a kind of fusion status that would utilize the term commonwealth and grant the territory rights similar to those of a Free Associated State, including the right to manage their own international affairs while still maintaining a special relationship with the United States.

Beyond the US

South African athletes at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.

AP Images

The term commonwealth is also still used beyond the US, notably in the Commonwealth of Nations – a 53 country intergovernmental group which includes countries such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India — where nearly all the countries share a history of being ruled by the British Empire as a territory or colony.

While most of these commonwealth countries are independent from the United Kingdom today, Queen Elizabeth II still serves as head of state for 16 countries in the Commonwealth of Nations, including Canada, Jamaica, and New Zealand.

Despite these countries having no legal obligation to one another, they do share a set of common goals. In its charter, the group commits to «the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.» Again, the term commonwealth here is used to emphasize the vision of a democratic and prosperous political community.

These countries also share a common appreciation for friendly competition and participate every four years in a sporting event — much like the Olympics — called the Commonwealth Games. Hosted most recently in Australia in 2018, athletes from these commonwealth countries come together to compete in sports like swimming and diving, table tennis, and gymnastics.

While the term commonwealth can be almost entirely dismissed as a remnant of political language from centuries ago, it is also a lasting reminder of the goals and ideals of politicians who shaped these nations — and a reminder of what those nations are still striving to achieve every day.

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Commonwealth vs. State: Differences and Significance Explained

Pennsylvania, Belize, Australia, and Kentucky have one thing in common: They’re all commonwealths (or parts of a commonwealth). In the United States, there are four states that are officially commonwealths. But does it matter if you call them a state?

U.S. Map showing which states are commonwealths vs states

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The Difference Between States and Commonwealths

Though commonwealth may sound fancier than state, it doesn’t mean that commonwealths themselves are fancier than states. Today in the U.S., the term commonwealth simply reflects the time period in which they were founded (the late 18th century).

  • A state is an administrative division overseen by a larger government.
  • A commonwealth is an independent political entity joined together for the common good.

Which U.S. States are Commonwealths?

The U.S. states that are called commonwealths in their constitutions include:

  • Kentucky

  • Massachusetts

  • Pennsylvania

  • Virginia

Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were among the 13 original colonies of America, while Kentucky was part of Virginia until it became the 15th state in 1792. After the Revolutionary War, these former colonies became some of the first states admitted into the Union of the United States.

How to Use Commonwealth vs. State in the U.S.

When talking about Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, you can still call them states rather than commonwealths.

Some examples of how to distinguish between the words commonwealth and state and their historic uses include:

  • The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was admitted to the Union on December 12, 1787.

  • New York became a state on July 9, 1776.

  • On June 15, 1776, Delaware became one of the original 13 states. It then became the first to ratify the Constitution and join the Union in 1787. That’s why it’s sometimes called the “First State” despite the fact that its constitution calls it both a state and a commonwealth.

What Does Commonwealth Mean?

The word commonwealth comes from a traditional English term used by political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. It describes a community that exists for the common good or welfare of its members, rather than the enrichment of a colonial power.

Because commonwealth conveyed more anti-monarchical sentiment than the word state, many preferred it over the term state after the American Revolution.

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Commonwealth Confusion in the U.S.

The terms state and commonwealth are sometimes used interchangeably, which explains why Virginia is home to both Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Similarly, Kentucky has a Secretary of State while Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania have Secretaries of the Commonwealth. 

The Delaware and Vermont constitutions also use both commonwealth and state in their text, but neither state classifies itself as a commonwealth. But, no matter how or where the state refers to itself as a commonwealth, all 50 states hold equal legal status in the U.S.

Commonwealth Territories of the U.S.

These four states aren’t the only American commonwealths. Commonwealth can also describe an unincorporated territory of the United States that has its own constitution and, what the Department of the Interior calls, «a more highly developed relationship» with the federal government.  

There are currently two of these commonwealths, although the Philippines was also a U.S. commonwealth from 1935 to 1946. These commonwealths do not have full statehood, but they are self-governing.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established with the ratification of its constitution in 1952. While Puerto Ricans are considered citizens of the United States, they have slightly different rights than citizens of the 50 states. 

Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections, although they do vote in presidential primaries. Additionally, they do not pay U.S. income taxes and can elect their own governors. At the federal level, Puerto Ricans have a non-voting Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives but no senators or congresspeople.

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The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was established in 1975, and residents of the CNMI became U. S. citizens in 1986. Like Puerto Rico, it is a U.S. territory but not a state. 

Citizens of the Northern Mariana Islands can vote in presidential primaries, but not in the general election. Also like Puerto Rico, the territory does not have any voting members in the House of Representatives, but a delegate who can participate in discussions on policy represents its citizens.

What Is the British Commonwealth?

North America isn’t the only place on Earth to hold a commonwealth. The largest commonwealth in the world is the Commonwealth of Nations, commonly known as “the Commonwealth.” It consists of 56 member states in continents around the world, most of which were once part of the British Empire.

Prominent members of the Commonwealth include:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • Rwanda
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom

Fifteen of these states are known as Commonwealth Realms, which recognize the King or Queen of England as their head of state. In the 21st century, around 2.5 billion people (nearly one-third of the world’s population) live in the Commonwealth.

Is “Commonwealth” Capitalized?

The word commonwealth is a common noun, just like state or country, so it’s not capitalized when used generically. (“The countries formed a commonwealth.”) However, when it’s part of a state or country’s proper name, you capitalize it (the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania). 

When discussing the British Commonwealth, always capitalize Commonwealth. That’s because the Commonwealth is a shortened form of the Commonwealth of Nations, which is a proper noun. It also lets the reader know that you’re referring to the Commonwealth of nations, as the commonwealth and the Commonwealth refer to different entities.

Staff Writer

Order of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation dated 02.

08.2021 No. 0114-pr «On Approval of the Regulations on the Sizes, Conditions and Procedure for Paying the Monthly Supplement to the Monthly Official Salary in Foreign Currency for special working conditions in the host country for federal state civil servants and employees filling positions that are not positions of the federal state civil service of the foreign apparatus of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation»

Order of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation dated 02.08.2021 No. 0114-pr «On approval of the Regulations on the size, conditions and procedure for paying a monthly allowance to the monthly official salary in foreign currency for special working conditions in the host country for federal civil servants and employees filling positions that are not positions of the federal state civil service of the foreign apparatus of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation «- Rossiyskaya Gazeta

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01/21/2022 10:40

Order of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots living abroad, and on international humanitarian cooperation dated 02. 08.2021 No. 0114-pr «On approval of the Regulations on the size, conditions and procedure for paying a monthly allowance to the monthly official salary in foreign currency for special working conditions in the host country to federal civil servants and employees replacing positions that are not positions Federal State Civil Service of the Foreign Apparatus of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation»

Date of signing: 02.08.2021 published: 01/21/2022

enters: 02.02.2022

registered 01/20/2022 No. 66940

Published on the official Internet portal of legal information 20.01. 2022

Enters into force on February 1, 2022

Order of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, compatriots living abroad and international humanitarian cooperation dated 02.08.2021 No. 0114-pr

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