Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for May, 2009

What is the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

We were driving around greater Richmond, Virginia when someone asked my friend, who was a local, “Do they still allow public smoking in the state of Virginia.” 

His reply was, “Virginia isn’t a state. It’s a commonwealth.”

So naturally, our reply was, “What’s the difference between a state and a commonwealth?”

My friend didn’t know.  He was just pointing out that Virginia was “technically” referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

What’s more, we had three history majors in the car and no one could come up with a rational explanation as to the difference.  Adding fuel to the fire, one of my friends in the car was a native Kentuckian, and he pointed out that Kentucky was also referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map!

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map?

No one came up with answer that day, but the question still stuck in my head.  So I did some researching.  Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and Kentucky are all officially referred to as commonwealths and not states. 

So I researched the legal definition of the term, “commonwealth”.  According to USLegal.com:

A commonwealth is a free state, or republic, characterized by a representative government. The states of the United States may each be considered commonwealths. Four states in the United States designate themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The term is often used to describe the government of Great Britain.

The British Commonwealth is a voluntary association of former British colonies, dependencies and other territories – and Mozambique, which has no historical ties to Britain. It comprises 53 independent countries, representing around 30% of the world population, and serves to foster international cooperation and trade links between people around the world.

So it was that simple.  Legally in America, a state is commonwealth and a commonwealth is a state.  The two terms are interchangeable. 

Unless…

If you happen to live in the American territories of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or the Commonwealth of Northern Marina Islands, than it seems different rules apply and commonwealth is not considered a state, per se.  According to the commonwealth entry in Wikipedia, “In the terminology of the United States insular areas, a Commonwealth is a type of organized but unincorporated dependent territory.”  So to sum up, sometimes a commonwealth is not a commonwealth and sometimes it is.  But in America, a state is always a state.

Incidentally, in February 2009 the Virginia Legislature passed a ban on smoking in most of the “commonwealth’s” bars and restaurants.

Quoth the Raven: Why Is There An Edger Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia?

If you are like me, than the city most closely associated with the literary figure Edgar Allan Poe is Baltimore, Maryland. Poe spent his final days in Baltimore and died under mysterious circumstances. Here is an account of his death by his cousin, Neilson Poe, reprinted in the book Edgar Allan Poe, by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Shawn Rosenheim:

“The [Baltimore] newspapers, in announcing his death, have only told a truth, which we may weep over & deplore, but cannot change. He died on Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, at the Washington Medical College, where had been since the Wednesday preceding. At what time he arrived in this city, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain. It appears that, on Wednesday, he was seen & recognised at one of the places of election in old town, and that his condition was such as to render it necessary to send him to the college, where he was tenderly nursed until the time of his death . . . . He lies alongside his ancestors in the Presbyterian burying ground on Green Street—.”

So perhaps, because he is buried in Baltimore and much of his extended Poe family was from Baltimore, he is most closely associated with that town.

Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised then to find that there was also a Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, which I attended on a recent trip to the city. In my personal historical research I knew that he had strong ties to the city, but was not sure how well-known that fact was. According to the museum, the Allan family, who were tobacco merchants, lived in Richmond. His first job was at the Southern Literary Messenger and he attended the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in Richmond and also gave a lecture in the city shortly before his death.

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond.  Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

Image of the front window of the Poe Museum in Richmond. Is that some visitor tapping, rapping at my chamber door?

I was disappointed, however, that there was no reference in the museum to the near duel in 1848 that Poe almost had with John Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, which I wrote about in my book, Pistols, Politics and the Press.  This, in my mind, helps cement Poe as a Richmond literary figure.  The near duel was over public comments made by Daniel regarding the growing relationship between family friend, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Poe. Infuriated, Poe sought to challenge Daniel to a duel over the controversy. According to some eyewitness accounts, Daniel, an expert duelist, called Poe’s bluff. He sent for Poe, who was apparently drunk, to meet him in his office at the Examiner. When Poe arrived, Daniel displayed two very large pistols on his desk and told him that instead of getting the police involved, that they should indeed settle the dispute with a duel. Poe apparently sobered up quickly and the situation was peacefully resolved.

A review of the two-volume works of Edgar Allan Poe, written by Daniel in the March 1850 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger, probably sums up popular opinion of the writer in Richmond at the time of his death:

“These half told tales and broken poems are the only records of a wild, hard life; and all that is left of a real genius, — genius in the true sense of the word, unmistakeable and original. No other American has half the chance of a remembrance in the history of literature. Edgar Poe’s reputation will rest in a very small minority of the compositions in these two volumes. Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad. The majority of his prose writings are the children of want and dyspepsia, of printer’s devils and of blue devils. Had he the power of applying his creative faculties—as have had the Miltons, the Shakespeares and all the other demiugi—he would have been a very great man.”

In short, even though he was a literary master, those who knew him never thought he worked up to his true potential. Some critics are never satisfied.