What Is the Significance of Virginia Being a "Commonwealth"?

since it declared independence from England in 1776, Virginia has been officially a commonwealth
since it declared independence from England in 1776, Virginia has been officially a "commonwealth"
Source: Library of Virginia, First Virginia Constitution, June 29, 1776

Since 1776, Virginia has been a "commonwealth." It associated with other colonies through a Continental Congress starting in 1775, and became part of a confederation with other former colonies in 1781. Virginia became one of the "united" states when the Constitution was ratified in 1788.

Delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention considered proposals from George Mason IV, Thomas Jefferson, and others before adopting Virginia's first constitution on June 29, 1776. The delegates endorsed the perspective of John Locke, as expressed in his Second Treatise on Government. As used by Locke, the term "commonwealth" indicated that the legislature, elected by the people, was the dominant force in government.1

Mason and his fellow delegates at the Fifth Virginia Convention had to adopt a form of government for Virginia, after declaring independence from King George III and the Parliament based in London. They wanted to replace the old form of colonial government with a structure that reflected their rationale for separating from England. Distrust of executive authority, after rejecting the concept of a hereditary monarch, was fundamental.

The Fifth Virginia Convention embraced the idea of political authority being based on the consent of the governed, who were represented by the House of Delegates and State Senate. Under the 1776 Constitution of Virginia, the legislature chose the governor for a one-year term and no governor could serve more than three consecutive terms. The first Virginia Constitution said:2

Commissions and Grants shall run, In the Name of the Common Wealth of Virginia...

Massachusetts and Pennsylvania also chose the term "commonwealth" for their constitutions in 1776. When Kentucky separated from Virginia and joined the Union in 1792, it retained the designation as a commonwealth.3

Under the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution, it did not matter if a member of the Confederation/Union chose to call itself a "commonwealth" or a "state." All were equal members, no matter how they chose to classify themselves.

Today, the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico is often described as a commonwealth, since the US Congress approved "The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico" in 1952.4

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is the other commonwealth associated with the United States of America. It was the only member of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands not to choose independence. In 1976, President Ford signed the "Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America," which voters in the Northern Mariana Islands had approved the previous year.5

The Philipines was designated a "commonwealth" in 1935, in preparation for independence after ten years. World War II intervened, but commonwealth status ended with full independence in 1946.6

Constitutions of Virginia


1. "Why is Massachusetts a Commonwealth?," Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, ; The Road to Independence: Virginia 1763-1783, History, Government, and Geography Service, Division of Secondary Education, State Department of Education, Richmond, Virginia, 1976, https://ia600305.us.archive.org/6/items/ERIC_ED127238/ERIC_ED127238.pdf (last checked November 24, 2017)
2. "The Constitution as Adopted by the Convention, [29 June 1776]," in Jefferson Papers, Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0161-0008 (last checked November 24, 2017)
3. "What's the difference between a commonwealth and a state?" Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/whats-the-difference-between-a-commonwealth-and-a-state (last checked November 24, 2017)
4. "The Origin of the “Commonwealth” Label," Puerto Rico Report, April 20, 2011, https://www.puertoricoreport.com/the-origin-of-the-commonwealth-label/ (last checked November 24, 2017)
5. "Covenant," Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Law Revision Commission, http://cnmilaw.org/cnmicovenant.html (last checked November 24, 2017)
6. "The Philippine Commonwealth Era," Philippine History, http://www.philippine-history.org/philippine-commonwealth.htm (last checked November 24, 2017)

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