How do you define 'commonwealth'? Depends on your address.

Ever wonder what a commonwealth is?

Turns out, it depends where you live. If you're from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, or Kentucky, you might think a commonwealth is a US state. But someone from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would argue that it's an independent nation associated with the United States. And to somebody living in the Commonwealth of Nations, it is a group of sovereign states from all over the world that look to the Queen of England as the head of their association.

Although these definitions may seem fairly wide-ranging, a closer look at the etymology of the word "commonwealth" reveals a common thread.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term commonwealth derives from commonweal, meaning, literally, the well-being of the community. Philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both used "commonwealth" to describe a republic, or, a nation where those in power are responsible to the citizens who elected them. The first commonwealth was Oliver Cromwell's republican government in England (1649 to 1660), after which the term came to be associated with radical reform and opposition to despotism.

Three centuries later, when Puerto Rico developed its constitution in 1952, it chose to call itself a commonwealth, emphasizing that it was an estado libre asociado, or, a free state associated with the US. Puerto Ricans have US citizenship, but they have their own government.

Similarly, the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) refers to a free association of states - many of which were once part of the British Empire - that are now independent but maintain ties of friendship.

In the case of the four US commonwealths, the term is essentially interchangeable with "state," and has no legal significance. But it's interesting to note that in Massachusetts, the term commonwealth was only introduced in the second draft of the state constitution, composed by John Adams in 1780. It's possible that by calling it a commonwealth, Adams implied a greater degree of autonomy for the state, thereby appealing to the people's sense of independence.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.