Commonwealth vs. State: Differences and Significance Explained

You may have noticed that some places in the United States are referred to as states while others are called commonwealths. Explore what distinguishes a commonwealth versus a state and how these places get their names.

USA States Map Drawing Commonwealth vs State USA States Map Drawing Commonwealth vs State
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The Difference Between States and Commonwealths

While states and commonwealths may appear different on the surface due to their names, the differences lie in their state constitutions rather than their laws or relationship to the rest of the country. There are no fundamental differences between a commonwealth and a state other than their names.

  • A state is a territory or organized community under one government.

  • Commonwealth is a legal designation for an independent territory, country or community.

What Does Commonwealth Mean?

Following the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the United States, each state wrote its own constitution and determined whether it would be called a commonwealth or a state.

The word commonwealth comes from a traditional English term used by political philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to describe a community that exists for the common good or welfare of its members. The term was preferred by the authors of certain former colonies' constitutions because it conveyed more anti-monarchical sentiment than the word state. It also indicated that these former colonies were ruled by the people.

Which States are Commonwealths?

The U.S. states that are called commonwealths in their constitutions include:

  • Kentucky

  • Massachusetts

  • Pennsylvania

  • Virginia

Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia were among the 13 original colonies of America, while Kentucky was part of Virginia until it became the 15th state in 1792. After the Revolutionary War, these former colonies became some of the first states admitted into the Union of the United States.

Commonwealth Confusion

The terms state and commonwealth are sometimes used interchangeably, which explains why Virginia is home to both Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Similarly, Kentucky has a Secretary of State while Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have Secretaries of the Commonwealth. The Delaware and Vermont constitutions also use both "commonwealth" and "state" in their text, but neither state classifies itself as a commonwealth.

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Commonwealth Territories

These four states aren't the only American commonwealths. The term can also be used to describe an unincorporated territory of the United States that has its own constitution and what the Department of the Interior calls "a more highly developed relationship" with the federal government. There are currently two of these commonwealths, although the Philippines was also a U.S. commonwealth from 1935 to 1946. These commonwealths do not have full statehood, but they are self-governing.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established with the ratification of its constitution in 1952. While Puerto Ricans are considered citizens of the United States, they have slightly different rights than citizens of the 50 states. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections, although they do vote in presidential primaries. Additionally, they do not pay U.S. income taxes and can elect their own governors. At the federal level, Puerto Ricans have a non-voting Resident Commissioner in the House of Representatives, but no senators or congresspeople.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was established in 1975, and residents of the CNMI became U.S. citizens in 1986. Like Puerto Rico, it is a U.S. territory but not a state. Citizens of the Northern Mariana Islands can vote in presidential primaries, but not in the general election. Also like Puerto Rico, the territory does not have any voting members in the House of Representatives, but its citizens are represented by a delegate who can participate in discussions on policy.

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How to Use Commonwealth vs. State

When talking about Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, you can still call them states rather than commonwealths.

Some examples of how to distinguish between the words commonwealth and state and their historic uses include:

  • The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was admitted to the Union on December 12, 1787.

  • New York became a state on July 9, 1776.

  • On June 15, 1776, Delaware became one of the original 13 states. It then became the first to ratify the Constitution and join the Union in 1787. That’s why it’s sometimes called the “First State” despite the fact that its constitution calls it both a state and a commonwealth.

Discover More About the States

Whether you reside in a state, commonwealth or somewhere else entirely, you can learn more about the United States and its history. Explore the U.S. state capitals and their most interesting facts. You can also read up on the founding of America and the writing of the Declaration of Independence.