The Commonwealth: A State by any Other Name?

SRelated imageurely you’ve heard the term, the Commonwealth of Virginia. What does it mean? Where did it come from? Is it any different from any other state?

Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community, a polity, founded for the common good. The noun commonwealth, meaning “public welfare, general good or advantage” dates from the 15th century. Originally the phrase was the common-wealth or the common weal—echoed in the modern synonym “public weal”—and comes from the old meaning of “wealth,” which is “well-being.” The term literally meant “common well-being,” sometimes seen as “sharing the wealth.” In the 17th century, the definition of “commonwealth” expanded from its original sense of “public welfare” or “commonweal” to mean a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state.

Along with Virginia, three other U.S. states are also commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. All four were part of Great Britain’s possessions along the Atlantic coast of North America prior to the formation of the United States in 1776. As such, they share a strong influence of English common law in some of their laws and institutions. When Virginia adopted its first constitution in 1776, the term commonwealth was used, most likely to emphasize that Virginia’s new government was based upon the sovereignty of the people united for the common good.

Three countries—Australia, the Bahamas, and Dominica—likewise have the official title of Commonwealth, as do two U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands). More recently, the term has been used to name some fraternal associations of nations, most notably the Commonwealth of Nations, an organization primarily composed of former territories of the British Empire; it is often referred to as simply “the Commonwealth.”

In philosophy, economics, and political science, the common good (commonwealth, common weal, general welfare) refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community or, alternatively, what is achieved by citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the realm of politics and public service. But to be clear: a commonwealth does not equate to socialism. However, it does connote an interest in the equal distribution of benefits (such as infrastructure, medical care, schools) and burdens (such as taxes).

The idea of commonwealth is also related to social contract theory as seen in French philosophy. In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited that in nature, one finds a condition of individual freedom in which creativity flourishes. People set up social contracts, he believed, to regulate the inevitable interactions with others. These contracts become the will of the people–of all the people inspiring US Founding  Fathers and  the French Revolution of 1789.

So how, if at all, does Virginia operationalize the goals of the term commonwealth? Do we focus on what is shared by all? Achieved by all? Available to all? Do we feel a greater sense of kinship, of brotherhood, with other Virginians than exists in other states? Does “commonwealth” imply social goals? If so, a good example might be Medicaid expansion, along with school funding. What does “common good” mean to citizens? We find out through voting, lobbying, letting our voices be heard. It’s worth contemplating. Does The Commonwealth of Virginia really mean something? Or is it but an anachronistic title?








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