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The difference

Reader Mary Simons is puzzled by a bit of terminology.

“I used to live in Pennsylvania,” she writes, “and now I live in Tennessee. Some of my ancestors are from Massachusetts and some from New York. Some of my husband’s ancestors are from Virginia, some from Kentucky and some from Georgia.”

And it’s those particular locations that raise the question: Tennessee and New York and Georgia are all states. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and Kentucky are all commonwealths.

So, Mary asks, “what’s the difference between a state and a commonwealth?”

This is one of those questions that really has different answers depending on the context.

Now of course The Legal Genealogist hates to ever come across as a smart-aleck.1

But the legal and factual difference between the word “state” as it describes Georgia, New York and Tennessee and the word “commonwealth” as it describes Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia is…

(Drum roll, please…)

     •  Seven letters. (The word “state” has only five letters; the word “commonwealth” has 12.)

     •  And two syllables. (Even in areas with pronounced drawls or twangs, “state” has only one syllable, and “commonwealth” has three.)

That’s it.


Oh, there are some practical consequences, to be sure. Two that I can think of off-hand:

     •  Criminal cases in the first group would usually be titled State v. Defendant2 and criminal cases in the second group would be titled Commonwealth v. Defendant.3

     •  And it’d be a lot harder to fit Commonwealth on a t-shirt.

Give me a few decades and I might be able to come up with a few more practical considerations but…

The fact is, those four jurisdictions — and only those four — chose to call themselves commonwealths when they began. All four named themselves as commonwealths in their earliest post-colonial constitutions: Virginia in June 17764; Pennsylvania in September 17765; Massachusetts in 17806; and Kentucky in 1792. Kentucky was a tad schizophrenic about it: the preamble of the 1792 Constitution references “the people of the State of Kentucky” but it refers in the body of the document to “this Commonwealth.”7

The theory is that the word was chosen by the first three as they broke away from England to emphasize that their government was for the common good — the common weal — and not for the Crown8 and that Kentucky used it simply because it was used to it when it was part of Virginia.

While they’re officially commonwealths, that doesn’t change a single thing in their relations with the United States or other states.9 The designation means so little in a real sense that each of the four uses the word “State” in the official name of its major law enforcement agency: the Kentucky State Police; Massachusetts State Police; Pennsylvania State Police; and Virginia State Police.

So why the wimpy “it depends on the context” answer above? Because there really are some American commonwealths where it does make a difference — where they are part of the United States but not states at all. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,10 for example, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.11

Now just so you’ll feel better, we’re not the only ones with this kind of an issue. In Australia, the question that gets asked is what the difference is between a state and a territory.12 And in Canada, the question is what the difference is between a province and a territory.13

At least in those cases, there really is a difference… But we’ll leave that for another day.


  1. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Or maybe some oceanfront property. In Nevada.
  2. For example, State v. Keaton (Baker Sup. Ct., 1849), on appeal Keaton v. State, 7 Ga. 189, 190 (1849). Except in New York, which titles its cases as People v. Defendant. E.g., People v. Melvin, 1 Yates Sel. Cas. 112 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1809).
  3. For example, Commonwealth v. Hunt, 45 Mass. 111 (1842).
  4. The Constitution of Virginia,” 29 June 1776, National Humanities Institute ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  5. Constitution of Pennsylvania,” 28 Sep 1776, National Humanities Institute ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  6. Constitution of Massachusetts,” 1780, National Humanities Institute ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  7. See Bennett Henderson Young and William Grigsby Bullitt, History and Texts of the Three Constitutions of Kentucky (Louisville : Courier-Journal, 1890), 2: 16; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  8. See Tom Kelleher, “The Difference Between “State” and “Commonwealth” in the United States,” Old Sturbridge Village ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  9. See Wikipedia (, “Commonwealth,” rev. 1 Oct 2012.
  10. See Wikipedia (, Puerto Rico,” rev. 8 Oct 2012.
  11. See Wikipedia (, “Northern Mariana Islands,” rev. 18 Sep 2012.
  12. See “What is the difference between a state and a territory?,” Government in Australia faqs, ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
  13. Difference between Canadian Provinces and Territories,” Privy Council Office, Government of Canada ( : accessed 9 Oct 2012).
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