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Why is Virginia (and MA and PA and KY) called a commonwealth?

Dear Cecil:

I recently moved from Minnesota to Washington, D.C. Not only did I leave behind 10,000 lakes, it seems I left the United States as well. No, I'm not talking about the drive for District statehood. I'm wondering why my new home, Virginia, is called a commonwealth instead of a state. Is there a difference between Virginia — and the commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky — and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico? If there's no legal difference, how come Puerto Rico doesn't get a star on the U.S. flag?

Tim Walker, Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Oh, fine, Timsy, stir up the revolutionaries. Fact is, in this country we’ve got commonwealths and then we’ve got commonwealths. Old-style CW’s, including VA, MA, PA, and KY, harken back to a 17th-century notion of the state (generic, not U.S.) as common enterprise — you know, all for one, one for all, that kind of stuff.

The proto-Virginians at Jamestown referred to their undertaking as a commonwealth virtually from the day the colony was founded in 1607. A few decades later in England “the Commonwealth” came to mean the period of Puritan rule under the Cromwells, 1649-1660. The big-C Commonwealth having collapsed, the notion of a little-C commonwealth assumed a distinctly anti-monarchical cast and “commonwealthmen” became ardent republicans.

For that reason, as well as the original idea of common enterprise, the term commonwealth commended itself to rad (well, semi-rad) Massachusetts statesman John Adams. Adams must have been a good persuader; the folks who walked into the Bay State’s constitutional convention in 1780 styled themselves “the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay” but came out carrying “the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Later “commonwealth” evolved to mean a voluntary association of colonies or nations. Thus in 1900 we had the commonwealth of Australia, a collection of former colonies amalgamated into a nation, and later the British Commonwealth (now merely the Commonwealth, to avoid the imperialist taint), an association of former British subject states.

It was apparently the latter brand of commonwealth that Washington brain trusters had in mind when they pondered the future of Puerto Rico in the 1940s. “Commonwealth” status was the perfect have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too compromise, signifying that Puerto Rico was sort of independent but not really and sort of a state but not really that either. Don’t worry about the Old Dominion, though. Legally the old-style commonwealths are indistinguishable from states, and from the standpoint of terminological coolness you’ve got states beat by a mile.

Cecil Adams

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