Looking Backward Into the Present

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

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.

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