Commonwealth (U.S. state)

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Commonwealth is a term used by four of the 50 states of the United States in their full official state names. "Commonwealth" is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. [1] The four states – Kentucky, [2] Massachusetts, [3] Pennsylvania, [4] and Virginia [5] – are all in the Eastern United States, and prior to the formation of the United States in 1776, were British colonial possessions (although Kentucky did not exist as an independent polity under British rule, instead being a part of Virginia). As such, they share a strong influence of English common law in some of their laws and institutions. [6] [7]



The term "commonwealth" does not describe or provide for any specific political status or legal relationship when used by a state. [8] Those that do use it are equal to those that do not. A traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good, it is used symbolically to emphasize that these states have a "government based on the common consent of the people" [9] as opposed to one legitimized through their earlier colonial status that was derived from the British crown. It refers to the common "wealth", or welfare, of the public [10] and is derived from a loose translation of the Latin term res publica . [lower-alpha 1]

Criminal charges in these four states are brought in the name of the Commonwealth. [lower-alpha 2]

Besides the four aforementioned states, other states have also on occasion used the term commonwealth to refer to themselves:

Two U.S. territories are also designated as commonwealths: Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. When used in connection with areas under U.S. sovereignty that are not states, the term broadly describes an area that is self-governing under a constitution of its own adoption and whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by the United States Congress. [8]



On September 28, 1786, the residents of Kentucky County began petitioning the Virginia legislature for permission to become a "free and independent state, to be known by the name of the Commonwealth of Kentucky". [13] On June 1, 1792, Kentucky County officially became a state. As in Virginia, the official title of the elected local prosecutor in each of Kentucky's political subdivisions is the Commonwealth's Attorney, as opposed to State's Attorney in other states or the more standard District Attorney. Kentucky is the only state outside of the original Thirteen Colonies that uses commonwealth in its name.


Massachusetts is officially named The Commonwealth of Massachusetts by its constitution. The name State of Massachusetts Bay was used in all acts and resolves up to 1780 and in the first draft of the constitution. The current name can be traced to the second draft of the state constitution, which was written by John Adams and ratified in 1780. [14]

In Massachusetts, the term State is occasionally used in an official manner, usually in a compound structure rather than as a standalone noun. This is evident in the names of the Massachusetts State Police, the Massachusetts State House, and the Bridgewater State Hospital.


The Seal of Pennsylvania does not use the term, but legal processes are in the name of the Commonwealth, and it is a traditional official designation used in referring to the state. In 1776, Pennsylvania's first state constitution referred to it as both Commonwealth and State, a pattern of usage that was perpetuated in the constitutions of 1790, 1838, 1874, and 1968. [15] [lower-alpha 3] One of Pennsylvania's two intermediate appellate courts is called the Commonwealth Court.


The name Commonwealth of Virginia dates back to its independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Virginia's first constitution (adopted on June 29, 1776) directed that "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." The Secretary of the Commonwealth still issues commissions in this manner.

Among other references, the constitution furthermore dictated that criminal indictments were to conclude "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, as opposed to State's Attorney in other states or the more standard District Attorney.

In Virginia, the term state is sometimes used in an official manner, usually in a compound structure rather than as a standalone noun. This is evident in the names of the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The state university in Richmond is known as Virginia Commonwealth University; there is also a Virginia State University, located in Ettrick.

See also


  1. cf. the 17th-century Commonwealth of England.
  2. Note that In California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and New York, criminal charges are brought in the name of the People. In all the other states, they are brought in the name of the State. Regardless of state, federal criminal charges are always brought in the name of the United States of America.
  3. A detailed history describing the origins of Pennsylvania's government, including its designation as a commonwealth from colonial times, is available from the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office. [16]

Related Research Articles

A commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. Historically it has sometimes been synonymous with "republic". The noun "commonwealth", meaning "public welfare, general good or advantage", dates from the 15th century. Originally a phrase it comes from the old meaning of "wealth", which is "well-being", and is itself a loose translation of the Latin res publica (republic). The term literally meant "common well-being". In the 17th century, the definition of "commonwealth" expanded from its original sense of "public welfare" or "commonweal" to mean "a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state".

In the United States, a state supreme court is the highest court in the state judiciary of a U.S. state. On matters of state law, the judgment of a state supreme court is considered final and binding in both state and federal courts.

County (United States) Subdivision used by most states in the United States of America

In the United States, a county is an administrative or political subdivision of a state that consists of a geographic region with specific boundaries and usually some level of governmental authority. The term "county" is used in 48 U.S. states, while Louisiana and Alaska have functionally equivalent subdivisions called parishes and boroughs, respectively.

Governor of Massachusetts Head of state and of government of the U.S. commonwealth of Massachusetts

The Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the head of state and head of government of Massachusetts and is charged with enforcing state laws. The governor is the chief of the executive branch of the government of Massachusetts and is the commander-in-chief of the commonwealth's military forces.

The governments of the Thirteen Colonies of British America developed in the 17th and 18th centuries under the influence of the British constitution. After the Thirteen Colonies had become the United States, the experience under colonial rule would inform and shape the new state constitutions and, ultimately, the United States Constitution.

District attorney In the United States, represents the government in the prosecution of criminal offenses

In the United States, a district attorney (DA), state's attorney or state attorney is the chief prosecutor representing a U.S. state in a local government area, typically a county. The exact name and scope of the office varies by state. Alternative titles for the office include county attorney, commonwealth's attorney, solicitor, or county prosecutor.

Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the state's first constitution following their declaration of independence and has been described as the most democratic in America; although it notably based rights in "men" not in "persons," as contemporaneous constitutions did in neighboring areas such as New Jersey, and as the 1689 English Bill of Rights and 1787 U.S. Constitution and 1791 U.S. Bill of Rights did. It was drafted by Robert Whitehill, Timothy Matlack, Dr. Thomas Young, George Bryan, James Cannon, and Benjamin Franklin. Pennsylvania's innovative and highly democratic government structure, featuring a unicameral legislature and collective executive, may have influenced the later French Republic's formation under the French Constitution of 1793.


A prosecutor is a legal representative of the prosecution in countries with either the common law adversarial system or the civil law inquisitorial system. The prosecution is the legal party responsible for presenting the case in a criminal trial against an individual accused of breaking the law. Typically, the prosecutor represents the government in the case brought against the accused person.

Pennsylvania General Assembly Legislative branch of the state government of Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is the legislature of the U.S. commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The legislature convenes in the State Capitol building in Harrisburg. In colonial times (1682–1776), the legislature was known as the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly and was unicameral. Since the Constitution of 1776, the legislature has been known as the General Assembly. The General Assembly became a bicameral legislature in 1791.

A people is a plurality of persons considered as a whole, as is the case with an ethnic group, nation or the public of a polity.

In the United States, term limits, also referred to as rotation in office, restrict the number of terms of office an officeholder may serve. At the federal level, the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution limits the president of the United States to two four-year terms. State government offices in some, but not all states, are term-limited, including for executive, legislative, and judicial office.

Commonwealth is an English term meaning a political community, usually used in reference to the Commonwealth of Nations.

State governments of the United States are institutional units in the United States exercising functions of government at a level below that of the federal government. Each state's government holds legislative, executive, and judicial authority over a defined geographic territory. The United States comprises 50 states: 13 that were already part of the United States at the time the present Constitution took effect in 1789, plus 37 that have been admitted since by Congress as authorized under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution.

U.S. state Constituent political entity of the United States

In the United States, a state is a constituent political entity, of which there are currently 50. Bound together in a political union, each state holds governmental jurisdiction over a separate and defined geographic territory where it shares its sovereignty with the federal government. Due to this shared sovereignty, Americans are citizens both of the federal republic and of the state in which they reside. State citizenship and residency are flexible, and no government approval is required to move between states, except for persons restricted by certain types of court orders.

The phrase law of the land is a legal term, equivalent to the Latin lex terrae, or legem terrae in the accusative case. It refers to all of the laws in force within a country or region, including statute law and case-made law.

Outline of Kentucky Overview of and topical guide to Kentucky

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the United States Commonwealth of Kentucky:


  1. "Definition of Commonwealth". Merriam-Webster . Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  2. "Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky". Legislative Research Commission . Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  3. "Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts". Preamble of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Massachusetts General Court . Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  4. "Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania". Pennsylvania General Assembly . Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  5. The Hornbook of Virginia History, 4th ed., page 88.
  6. Paul Reinsch. English Common Law in the Early American colonies. Ph.D. thesis. Un. of Wisconsin. 1898.
  7. William E. Nelson. The Common Law in Colonial America. Vol. I. Oxford University Press. 2008.
  8. 1 2 "7 fam 1120 Acquisition of U.S. Nationality in U.S. Territories and Possessions". U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual Volume 7- Consular Affairs. U.S. Department of State. January 3, 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 22, 2015. Retrieved December 13, 2015.
  9. See "Commonwealth", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001–07.
  10. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000.
  11. The Constitution of the State of Vermont, Chapter II, §§ 1, 8, and 71.
  12. Constitution of Delaware (1776), Art. 23.
  13. Warren, Joseph Parker (October 1905). "The Confederation and the Shays Rebellion". The American Historical Review. 11 (1): 42–67. doi:10.2307/1832364. JSTOR   1832364.
  14. "CIS: State Symbols". July 27, 2004. Archived from the original on July 27, 2004.
  15. PHMC: Pennsylvania History Archived April 3, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  16. "History of DOS" (PDF). Retrieved January 4, 2012.