What does it mean to be a Commonwealth state?
December 26, 2012 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Can somebody please explain to me in very basic terms (as if I were a 5 year old) the difference between a "Commonwealth state" and a state in the United States? I have Googled this question and still don't understand the difference.
posted by Coffee Bean to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like the Wikipedia article explicitly talking about the term Commonwealth as it applies to a US state is a good starting point. In practical terms, this is a naming distinction only. The Straight Dope has more of a chatty explanation for it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:27 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you mean a state that is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth)?

Commonwealth countries were all (one or two exceptions) colonised by or administered by Britain at some stage in the past and maintain an association that is apolitical and co-operation-based. No state has any political jurisdiction over any other, neither is there any central form of government. Some states retain Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state and she is the head of the Commonwealth. The states are politically and legally independent and can leave the Commonwealth of their own accord.

The US states are connected politically and legally, with a central government and laws and (as far as I understand it) trying to leave the union causes kind of a ruckus.
posted by yogalemon at 4:53 PM on December 26, 2012

You may need to provide more context.

If you are trying to distinguish between Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia on the one hand and all the rest of the U.S. states on the other, then Jessamyn's answer is correct - it's essentially a difference in the naming convention.

However, sometimes in various international press, the term "commonwealth state" is used to refer to a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, which is a collection of (to summarize a bit) former members of the British Empire. There is no longer a British Empire, but the members of the Commonwealth still tend to share certain properties, such as having a British-style parliamentary system and/or recognizing the British Queen as a formal monarch. So they are still grouped together for purposes of making various economic or social observations.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:57 PM on December 26, 2012

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, and what that means is that it has home rule, even though it isn't a state.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:00 PM on December 26, 2012

As a native Pennsylvanian, there's effectively no difference between us and other states. We don't go around calling it "the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" -- it's more like a formal title. I didn't even know it was a commonwealth until a few years ago. I think my reaction was "cool, we're different in a way that completely doesn't matter."
posted by DoubleLune at 5:43 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, if you're thinking more Puerto Rico and less Pennsylvania, this article supplements jessamyn's nicely.
posted by pitrified at 6:48 PM on December 26, 2012

IT was my understanding, certainly in the Commonwealth of Virginia, that cities are not in counties. For example, the city of Charlottesville is surrounded by Albernarle County but is not in the county.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:55 PM on December 26, 2012

that cities are not in counties

Not in Pennsylvania.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:31 PM on December 26, 2012

Not in Massachusetts either.
posted by jessamyn at 8:33 PM on December 26, 2012

In Massachusetts, every square inch of the state is part of some township.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:45 PM on December 26, 2012

I stand corrected. Doesn't sound like counties and cities and their overlap has anything to do with being in a Commonwealth.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:56 PM on December 26, 2012

The county-city non-overlap thing is very strongly a Virginia phenomenon -- 39 of the 42 "independent cities," cities not in counties, are in Virginia, the other three being Baltimore, St Louis and Carson City. (Places such as San Francisco and Denver are consolidated city-counties, so they're both a city and a county.)

To sum up, there are three usages of "commonwealth" so far discussed:

1. Commonwealths of Kentucky, Mass., Penn., Va.: they are termed this way for historical reasons. No legal differences whatsoever from other US states because of the naming, although there are occasionally some small stylistic differences. For example, prosecutions in the name of the state are Commonwealth of Kentucky v andrewesque in Lexington but State of Georgia v andrewesque in Atlanta; but this has no bearing whatsoever on the actual legal process or, more broadly, the state's relationship/role with the federal government.

2. Commonwealths that are the insular areas of the United States: currently only Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana islands. Very broadly speaking, a territory of the US with some but not all of the full rights of the states. Sort of a sui generis application, as the exact requirements seem to be rather hazy.

3. Commonwealth states are member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth. Contrary to popular belief, the Queen does not have to be the head of state for a state to be a Commonwealth state* (India, Nigeria, South Africa, for example) although this used to be a requirement (a reason why Ireland is not a member) and she is the Head of the Commonwealth, an officially separate role. The states in which Elizabeth II is the head of state are, rather, Commonwealth realms (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Jamaica, etc.)

I suspect you were asking about #1, but figured it would be helpful to sum it up anyway.

*At this point, you don't even have to be a former British colony: Mozambique and Rwanda are Commonwealth states, for example.
posted by andrewesque at 12:31 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

In addition to the helpful answers above, there's a general point that I find I often need to explain to my history students: "state" can refer either to an independent country or to a political division within an independent country. You probably know this already, but I'm surprised at how many people don't grasp it.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:09 AM on December 27, 2012

The fact that no one here can give you anything more than the technical definition of the term saddens me. Commonwealth is more of an idea, than a specific distinction. When a state designates itself as a Commonwealth they are thumbing their nose at centuries of history where the people worked and served for the benefit of kings or a wealthy class. By designating the state a Commonwealth we are confirming that we collect taxes and make our laws to benefit the most people - the "common good" if you will - not just the wealthy property owners, merchants or those with political clout. It's meant as a reminder to the political representatives of that state that they serve all of the citizens, not just a certain class. Obviously this is a concept that has long been forgotten here in the U.S.
posted by any major dude at 7:17 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a coincidence, I just read this article in Mental Floss two days ago. I found it very informative.
posted by slogger at 8:17 AM on December 27, 2012

Since we're veering into etymology, I'll add a qualification to what any major dude wrote: "commonwealth" is a direct translation into English of the Latin res publica, the origin of our word "republic." It's definitely opposed to the notion of inherited rule, but not necessarily to the idea of a political elite whose members run the state for their own benefit. That depends on the extent of suffrage. In the Commonwealth of Virginia the franchise was limited, in colonial and early national days, to male freeholders who owned a lot and house in a town or at least 100 acres in the country (J. A. C. Chandler, A History of Suffrage in Virginia, pp. 12-17). The historian Donald Queller has described the government of the late medieval Venetian Republic, where suffrage was limited to the nobility, as essentially a welfare system for impoverished nobles.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:13 AM on December 27, 2012

« Older How can I move / switch NYC apartment radiators?   |   Help my mouth get it on Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.