If you’ve spent any time in Massachusetts or watched our local news channels, you may have heard someone refer to the state simply as “the Commonwealth.” There can sometimes be some confusion about what this means and how the name differentiates Massachusetts from other states.
Here, we’ll explore what living in a commonwealth means, both historically and in terms of laws and taxes.
The Four Commonwealths of the United States
Four states in the Union refer to themselves as commonwealths. They are Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
From a legal and political standpoint, there’s nothing different about these states than any other states. According to Merriam-Webster, “The distinction is in name alone. The commonwealths are just like any other state in their politics and laws, and there is no difference in their relationship to the nation as a whole.”
The Historical Context of Commonwealths
The only real reason we call these states commonwealths is that their constitutions designate them as such. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted by none other than John Adams, went into effect in 1780. It is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution, and it eventually served as a model for the United States Constitution itself.
Pennsylvania became a state in 1787, Virginia became a state in 1788, and Kentucky became a state in 1792. But Pennsylvanians and Virginians were referring to their territories as “commonwealths” before they were officially incorporated.
Of course, the term commonwealth also has a broader historical context. Leading up to 1780 and beyond, the word “Commonwealth” was a popular term for referring to a body politic, or the body of people making up a nation or state, in many parts of the world.
Political writers at the time also used the term in an anti-monarchical way. That’s what popularized it with the founders. In 1787, John 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, or rather a representative democracy.”
Today, many of the countries that were previously a territory or colony of the British Empire also refer to themselves as the “Commonwealth of Nations.” During the brief historical period in which England was governed as a republic, its people referred to it as the “Commonwealth of England.”
You can find historical remnants in the names of other administrative areas in the U.S. as well.
Consider the “parishes” of Louisiana. They function in the same way as other states’ counties. But because Louisiana was once officially Roman Catholic under French and Spanish rule, its territories were named “parishes” to designate them as administrative districts of the Catholic diocese.
Louisiana has no official religion today. But the official state map used the term “parishes” to denote governmental units when the state was admitted into the Union in 1816. The name hasn’t been changed since.
Are There Any Benefits to Living in a Commonwealth?
When it comes to taxes, laws, politics, and your rights, there are no tangible benefits or detriments to living in a commonwealth state instead of another state. The only real difference is in the designation itself.
However, a state may be a commonwealth, but a commonwealth isn’t necessarily a state, and there is a difference between living in a United States territory and a fully incorporated state of the Union.
Puerto Rico, for example, is often referred to as a “commonwealth,” but it is not an incorporated state. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory that designates itself with the term in the official title of its government.
Puerto Rico’s government is not as autonomous as those of incorporated states. It has no voting representative in the U.S. Congress, and Puerto Ricans cannot vote in federal elections. Most Puerto Ricans aren’t required to file federal tax returns, either.
Still, there’s something to be said about living in a place that calls itself a “commonwealth.” Commonwealths aren’t just political bodies. They are political bodies formed to serve the “common good.”
Ideally, living in a commonwealth means living in a place where you and those around you can act as one for the prosperity and wellbeing of all. On a small level, knowing we live in a commonwealth might just make us that much more generous to our communities and that much more friendly with our neighbors.
States like Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are also integral parts of the rich tapestry of American history. They embody many of our most precious traditions, and their residents are proud to carry on the legacy of preserving the common good.