Why Is Virginia Called a Commonwealth Instead of a State?

A view of a fountain on the lawn of Virginia's capital building.
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Most of the 50 states of the United States are simply called "state" in their official title, as in the "state of California" or the "state of New York." However, the official title of Virginia is the "commonwealth of Virginia," and not the "state of Virginia." At the time of U.S. independence, the word "commonwealth" meant a state that belonged to the people. Virginia chose this title to emphasize its democratic nature.

1 The Word "Commonwealth" in History

The word "commonwealth" originally meant a political body formed for the common good, which was historically called the "common weal." It became common in the 1600s to mean a community of people that was politically organized. From 1649 to 1660 England's monarchy was temporarily overthrown and the country renamed the Commonwealth of England. During the American Revolution, the title "Commonwealth of Virginia" was used in the new state's constitution. Unlike the word "state," which can also mean a country, democratic or not, the term "commonwealth" emphasized that Virginia was founded to serve the common good of its people.

2 The Word "Commonwealth" Today

In addition to Virginia, three other states also call themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. This is a difference in name only, since all U.S. states are required to have democratic constitutions. Puerto Rico and some other U.S. territories are also called commonwealths, though they have less power than states. Additionally, the term "commonwealth" is also used to mean a group of countries connected in a loose association, such as the Commonwealth of Nations.

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.