Four U.S states; Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Pennsylvania use the term Commonwealth with their name.
To understand why Virginia is called a Commonwealth we have to first understand what is meant by the term Commonwealth.
A Commonwealth is a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them. So it is basically a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people.
The word comprises two parts. Common meaning “belonging to all” and Wealth meaning “Riches”. So Commonwealth stresses the need for a government made for the common good.
As for Virginia, the significance of the title Commonwealth is rooted in history.
As used by Locke, the term “commonwealth” indicated that the legislature, elected by the people, was the dominant force in government.
The term as an official designation was first used in Virginia during the period 1649-1660. Virginia became a royal colony again in 1660, and the word commonwealth was dropped.
The term was reintroduced in the first constitution of Virginia in 1776- the year Virginia gained independence from British colonial rule. The title was chosen most likely to emphasize that Virginia’s new government was based upon the sovereignty of the people united for the common good. The designation commonwealth of Virginia has been used in official records ever since.
The title “Commonwealth” also holds political significance for Virginia. It emphasises why Virginia got independence from British colonial rule.
The delegates of Fifth Virginia Convention, a meeting held in 1776 that declared Virginia an independent state, wanted to replace the old form of colonial government with a structure that reflected their rationale for separating from England.
Leaders like George Mason IV and Thomas Jefferson rejected the idea of a hereditary Monarch. The title of a Commonwealth reflects that fundamental change from executive authority of a Monarch to a government of the people.
So does the title of Commonwealth make Virginia different from other states?
No it does not. The distinction is simply in the name alone. The commonwealths are just like any other state in their politics and laws. There are no constitutional implications of the title. There is no difference in Virginia’s relationship to the USA. It’s just a name that reflects Virginia’s historic struggle of independence.
The confusion may be caused due to two factors; U.S territories that also include Commonwealth in their name and a world organization of autonomous states known as the Commonwealth of Nations.
The territories of Puerto Rico and Northern Mariana are also Commonwealths. Both of these are not states and only have non voting representatives in the Congress. Taxation for the two territories is also different from the United States.
Meanwhile, The Commonwealth of Nations is a body of Sovereign states comprising the United Kingdom and a number of its former dependencies.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has nothing in common with these two types of Commonwealths.
John is a local news reporter for the Virginia Herald. His coverage area is statewide with a focus on NOVA and Richmond area news.
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