Jun 062009

Don’t ask me why, but I got interested in determining what, if any, difference there is a between a State and a Commonwealth in the United States. (I guess it might have something to do with working on a project for the Commonwealth of Virginia.) The short answer is that there isn’t much of a difference.

Under the Constitution, all Commonwealths are also States, and as you know, all States in the U.S. have similar forms of government and supposedly equal powers. Four States refer to themselves as Commonwealths: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky (Kentucky was part of Virginia until it became the 15th State). These four are Commonwealths mainly because the term is used in their Constitutions. The founding fathers were steeped in the political theories of Locke, Hobbes, and other English philosophers of the 1600s. So when men like John Adams in Massachusetts and George Mason in Virginia wrote their states’ constitutions in the 1770s, ’80s and ’90s (a politically sensitive time!), they used the word “commonwealth” to make a very clear point of the fact that their governments were based on the authority of the people, i.e. the entire body politic, and not The Crown. So they are Commonwealths simply because they elected to call themselves Commonwealths.

However, while most of the resources I found say there is no difference, WikiAnswers.com offered one slight difference, “in a commonwealth landowners do not have mineral or oil rights to their land. They don’t actually own their land but own its use. However this does not much differentiate their structure or self-government in any way from other states in the Union.”

The venerable Dictionary.com offers an alternate definition: a “self-governing, autonomous political unit voluntarily associated with the United States, namely, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.” The degree of dependency varies from place to place, but we’ll use Puerto Rico as an example.

There are a few major differences between Puerto Rico and a typical American state:

  • The Internal Revenue Code does not apply to Puerto Rico.
  • Puerto Rico has no voting representation in Congress.
  • Puerto Rican citizens are not allowed to vote in presidential elections.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens; they pay social security, can receive federal welfare, and can serve in the armed forces. I guess you’d consider it a limited partnership.

  4 Responses to “The Difference Between a State and a Commonwealth”

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  1. Dear Sir,

    I would not rely on WikiAnswers.com for any truth in what you are seeking to answer.

    Since Wiki can be changed by any party thus making Wiki an unreliable search for facts.

    I disagree that Commonwealth’s have no rights to minerals or oil of their land. This I know because their has been a recent find of natural gas in the Northeastern part of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

    Cabot Industries conducted geo-thermal grinding and found that Springville, Tunkhannock, Montrose and various other regions rich in natural gas which is infact fossil fuel. I would put that in the same catagory as a mineral or oil.

    The conclusion is the landowner does have rights to their enriched ownings.

    Cabot offers the landowner money to either lease or buy the land where the natural gas was found.

    Many landowners are making millions of dollars leasing their land to Cabot Industries for the drilling of nature gas.

    I live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and stumbled upon this article seeking to know the difference between a state and Commonwealth.

    I suggest you do a little more research and do not ever rely on Wiki for any facts.

  2. Hi Jeanette, while I greatly appreciate your comment, I would suggest a more careful reading of the original post.

    I did not rely solely on WikiAnswers, and specifically note that the other sources indicated there was no difference between a State and Commonwealth, but that WikiAnswers alone had offered this difference in definition.

    So thanks for elaborating on mineral rights ownership in PA, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. I do not understand why there are so many nieve people in America. The difference between a commonwealth state and not, is that in a commonwealth state everyone that works is taxed to death. Commonwealth state citizens pay the highest taxes in America, hello….

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