Commonwealth can be conceived as a system of government that executes itself to the welfare of the people through their consent, rather than for the narrow self interests of an elite few. OpinionFront describes what a Commonwealth State actually means.
Did you Know?
British Liberal Party politician Lord Rosebery publicly popularized the term Commonwealth during a famous speech in 1884, in Adelaide, Australia when he referred to the British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations.
The term ‘commonwealth,’ dates back to the 15th century, derived from the old English term ‘weal’ implying ‘wealth’ or ‘well-being.’ The term became popular during the time of monarchy when people wanted to break free from the traditional monarchic rules and limit the powers of the kings. In modern terms it refers to a state or nation governed for the common good, rather than an aristocratic class of people.
During the colonial rule, several English colonies started to reaffirm their independence which eventually led to the American Revolution and the formation of the United States of America. Four of the 50 states link themselves back to the memories of colonial times and prefer to distinguish themselves by calling themselves ‘commonwealths.’ When they joined the United States, they preferred sticking to the old term instead of using ‘state’ as their title. In modern times, the term commonwealth also refers to ‘a political unit having local political independence but voluntarily united with the U.S.’ e.g. Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.
An independent democratic state or community in which the supreme power is vested in the people for their common well-being. Used to refer to some US states, namely, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
★ During 1619, the first Virginia General Assembly was held under Gov. Sir George Yeardley focusing on ‘the better establishing of a commonwealth state’.
★ However, Virginia, did not adopt the term until the onset of the Revolutionary War. During colonial times, the state was officially known as the ‘Colony and Dominion of Virginia’. In 1776, when delegates met in Williamsburg to ratify a state constitution, they adopted ‘commonwealth’ to constitute for their new government. This was possibly to commemorate the Puritans’ rebellion against the King of England more than a century ago.
★ Besides Virginia, three other states – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Kentucky – still use the term commonwealth to describe their government. Founded by Puritans and Quakers respectively, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were among the thirteen colonies that originally broke ties with England in 1776. Kentucky was a part of Virginia until it joined the nation as the 15th state in 1792 and kept the term in its new constitution.
★ Presently a commonwealth and a state mean the same thing when it comes to U.S. constitution. Basically, the term ‘commonwealth’ is only symbolic, and the term ‘state’ is used to refer to sub-units of the nation. Regardless of what they call themselves, Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Kentucky compulsorily abide by the federal legal system and political order of the U.S. outlined in the constitution.
★ The term was first officially used during the Interregnum (1649-1660) of Charles I and Charles II during which Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector had established a republican government known as the ‘Commonwealth of England.’ In 1660, Virginia came under the sovereign law again and the term was dropped. On 29th June, 1776, Virginia adopted its first constitution which stated that the ‘Commissions and Grants shall run, In the Name of the commonwealth of Virginia, and bear test by the Governor with the Seal of the Commonwealth annexed.’ From then, the term has been used in all its official records and the Secretary of the Commonwealth still issues commissions under this condition.
★ The constitution moreover dictated that criminal indictments were to conclude as “against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Additionally, the official title of the elected local prosecutor in each of Virginia’s political subdivisions is the ‘Commonwealth’s Attorney’. In Virginia, the term State is occasionally used for ‘Virginia State Corporation Commission’ and ‘Virginia State Police’.
★ Kentucky originally belonged to Virginia but its residents demanded “a free and independent state, to be known by the name of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” On 28th September, 1786, they petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia legislature for statehood. On 1st June, 1792, it officially became a state. In Virginia, the official title of the elected local prosecutor in each of Kentucky’s political subdivisions is the ‘Commonwealth’s Attorney’.
★ In the first draft of the state constitution, Massachusetts was officially named “State of Massachusetts Bay.” In 1780, it was rectified by a second draft scripted by John Adams and named “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” The term State is occasionally used for ‘Massachusetts State Police’ and the ‘Massachusetts State House’.
★ In 1776, the first state constitution of Pennsylvania used the term alongside the term ‘state’ and hence has been continued in constitutions of 1790, 1838, 1874 and 1968. The term is traditionally used to refer to the state and used in legal processes. However, the Seal of Pennsylvania does not endorse it. Pennsylvania’s two intermediate appellate courts are called the ‘Commonwealth Court’.
The common bonding factor in legal terms among these four states is that all the criminal prosecutions are bought in the name of ‘Commonwealth.’ Though the term is seen as a symbolic reminder of the past, it’s presence in the individual constitutions amplifies its importance.