What Is the Difference Between a Commonwealth and a State?

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania flag on a blue sky

Getty Images / Douglas Sacha

Have you ever wondered why some states have the word commonwealth in their name? Some people believe there is a distinction between states and states that are also commonwealths but this is a misconception. When used in reference to one of the fifty states there is no difference between a commonwealth and a state. There are four states which are officially known as commonwealths: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Massachusetts. The word appears in their full state name and in documents like the state constitution.

Some places, like Puerto Rico, are also referred to as a Commonwealth, where the term means a location that is voluntarily united with the U.S.

Why Are Some States Commonwealths?

To Locke, Hobbes, and other 17th-century writers, the term "commonwealth" meant an organized political community, what we today call a "state." Officially Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Massachusetts are all commonwealths. This means that their full state names are actually "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" and so on. When Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia, and Massachusetts became part of the United States, they merely took the old form of state in their title. Each of these states was also a former British Colony. After the Revolutionary War, having Commonwealth in the state name was a sign that the former colony was now ruled by a collection of its citizens.

Vermont and Delaware both use the term commonwealth and state interchangeably in their constitutions. The Commonwealth of Virginia will also sometimes use the term State in an official capacity. This is why there is both a Virginia State University and a Virginia Commonwealth University.

Much of the confusion surrounding the term commonwealth probably comes from the fact that a commonwealth has a different meaning when it's not applied to a state. Today, Commonwealth also means a political unit having local autonomy but voluntarily united with the United States. While the US has many territories there are only two commonwealths; Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, a group of 22 islands in the Western Pacific ocean. Americans who travel between the continental U.S. and its commonwealths do not need a passport. However, if you have a layover that stops in any other nation, you will be asked for a passport even if you do not leave the airport.

Differences Between Puerto Rico and the States

While residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens they have no voting representatives in Congress or the Senate. They are also not allowed to vote in the Presidential elections. While Puerto Ricans do not have to pay income tax they do pay many other taxes. Which means that, like the residents of Washington D.C., many Puerto Ricans feel they suffer from "taxation without representation" because while they do send representatives to both Houses, their reps cannot vote. Puerto Rico is also not eligible for federal budget money allocated to the States. There is much debate around whether Puerto Rico should become a state or not.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "What Is the Difference Between a Commonwealth and a State?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/commonwealth-vs-state-3976938. Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 28). What Is the Difference Between a Commonwealth and a State? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/commonwealth-vs-state-3976938 Rosenberg, Matt. "What Is the Difference Between a Commonwealth and a State?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/commonwealth-vs-state-3976938 (accessed June 4, 2023).