Four states in the United States call themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But what is a commonwealth?
A commonwealth is a free state characterized by a representative government. In other words, there is no legal difference between a commonwealth and any other state. Legally, each of these states is a commonwealth because the term is written into their constitutions.
So why do these states call themselves commonwealths? In the case of Virginia, the term was first used as an official designation during the period between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II. Parliament’s Oliver Cromwell served as Lord Protector and had established a republican government known as the Commonwealth of England.
When Virginia became a royal colony in 1660, the word commonwealth was dropped from the full title. But when Virginia adopted its first constitution in 1776, the term commonwealth was reintroduced.
At the time, ‘Commonwealth’ was a fairly popular term for a whole body of people constituting a state or a nation. The term was the preferred usage of many political writers probably because there was an anti-monarchic sentiment in using the word. In all likelihood, it was used to emphasize that Virginia’s new government was based upon the sovereignty of the people united for the common good (or common wealth). Commonwealth of Virginia has been used as the official designation ever since.
The people of Massachusetts overwhelmingly rejected the first draft of the Constitution in 1778. In that draft, and all other acts and resolves between 1776 and 1780, the name ‘State of Massachusetts Bay’ had been used.
When he framed the Massachusetts’ constitution, John Adams utilized the term ‘Commonwealth’. In his Life and Works, Adams, wrote:
“There is, however, a peculiar sense in which the words republic, commonwealth, popular state, are used by English and French writers, who mean by them a democracy, a government in one centre, and that centre a single assembly, chosen at stated periods by the people and invested with the whole sovereignty, the whole legislative, executive and judicial power to be included in a body or by committees as they shall think proper.”
This second draft was accepted by the people in 1780.
The term was used in the aftermath of the American Revolution to emphasize that the new governments were not in place for the good of the Crown, but for the common good of all. Long story short, it is used like the modern sense of the word republic in contrast to a kingdom.
But what about Puerto Rico?
It is worth noting that Puerto Rico is also has the word ‘Commonwealth’ in its name. Just like Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the word does not have any legal meaning at all.
So do the residents of Puerto Rico have special status apart from other territories such as Guam? The answer is no.
The U.S. Constitution is pretty clear here (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2):
“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States….”
This applies to Puerto Rico. In 2007, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico said:
“The commonwealth system does not, however, describe a legal status different from Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a ‘territory’ subject to congress’s plenary authority under the Territory Clause ‘to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory… belonging to the United States.’”
And in 2011, the President’s Task Force said:
“Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
When (or if) Puerto Rico becomes a state, it could keep the term in it’s name just like Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.