USA States Called Commonwealths

On January 26, 2008 · 6 Comments

Commonwealth is a term that can be broken into its two basic components to understand its meaning. “Common” refers to the people or to the public. “Wealth” refers to well being or welfare. So commonwealth can be thought of as a system of government that performs in the interests and well being of the people through their consent, rather than for the narrow self interests of a few. This became an underlying principal of several English colonies as they started to assert their independence to eventually form what would become the United States of America. While a large preponderance of what are now fifty United States do indeed call themselves “states,” four of the earlier ones hearken back to those memories of colonial times and choose to differentiate themselves by calling themselves “commonwealths.” As a practical matter it’s a semantical difference and they operate no differently than the other forty-six but it’s an interesting distinction. Those four commonwealths are Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.


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Virginia called itself a commonwealth before the United States existed so it has worn this label the longest of the four. It was one of the original 13 colonies that came into union to form the United States and was highly influential in those beginning days, the home to many of the early Presidents. One of its luminaries was Thomas Jefferson and his magnificent University of Virginia has been named a World Heritage Site… here is a brief video I took from that location.


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Massachusetts was also one of the original thirteen and one of the smallest. But it’s home to more than six million people so has one of the highest population densities. Since it’s sometimes called the “Bay State,” one can imagine that the water plays an important role in its heritage. Even today there are a number of ferries that people can take to historic picturesque towns along Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.


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Pennsylvania was the earliest of the four Commonwealths to join the Union, coming only after Delaware. It called itself the Keystone due to its central location and leading role in holding together both the northern and southern colonies. A keystone is found at the top of an arch and is literally the key stone, locking all the other stones in place. Without a well-placed keystone an arch will collapse. Pennsylvania used this as a metaphor for its location, it’s economy and it’s political strength as the colonies struggled in unison for independence.


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Kentucky is the only commonwealth that wasn’t among the original thirteen United States. It came not long afterwards though, at number fifteen. It’s also the only one removed from the eastern seaboard, settled by those early pioneers who pushed into the Appalachian Mountains and towards the Mississippi River during the initial western expansion that wouldn’t stop until it reached the Pacific Ocean.

On January 26, 2008 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “USA States Called Commonwealths”

  1. […] identically to most counties but in fact they are not. This is a rather common phenomenon in the Commonwealth of Virginia where there are 39 independent cities and where every municipality that incorporates as a city […]

  2. […] understand the geography. The Potomac River separates the Commonwealth of Virginia from the District of Columbia. The only direct way to drive from Virginia into the District […]

  3. […] one ponders a map of the United State’s and focuses on one of its four Commonwealths, specifically Pennsylvania, one will notice something a bit odd with its borders. The northern, […]

  4. […] eastern shore, the narrow sandy strip that is physically separated from the remainder of the Commonwealth by the Chesapeake Bay to form the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. I went there each summer for a […]

  5. […] The basic design of the Massachusetts flag dates back to the era of the Revolution and features a green pine tree on a white field. The original version also included the motto, "An Appeal to Heaven" but that has since been removed. Officially it’s known as "The Naval and Maritime Flag of the Commonwealth" (recognizing that Massachusetts is but one of four United States that declares itself as a commonwealth). […]

  6. Ian Dunbar says:

    “Commonwealth” is just “Republic” (i.e. Res Publica) translated from Latin into English.

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