“Pennsylvania is not a state — it’s a commonwealth,” I’ve occasionally been told. Sometimes people mean this to justify some particular interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as it applies (or doesn’t) to Pennsylvania. Other times it seems to be just an interesting point of trivia. Either way, it has never been explained to me, in this context, why our state seal says, “Seal of the State of Pennsylvania,” or what the exact difference between a commonwealth and a state is.
So what is a commonwealth? Mostly I’ve just thought of it as an old-fashioned-sounding term for a state. Or a group of former colonies that couldn’t quite bear to be rid of an association with their colonizers. Or a statue on top of the State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Three other U.S. states — Massachusetts, Kentucky and Virginia — also call themselves commonwealths. I’ve wondered if they mean the same thing as we do by the term, but then I’ve never seen any official explanation of what it means to Pennsylvania. The current state constitution uses the word “commonwealth” almost 150 times, but never defines it.
Puerto Rico is the most significant entity whose relationship to the federal government is officially designated a commonwealth. The literal translation of the Spanish name for it is “free associated state,” which sounds like something Carl Jung might have thought up. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual says in relation to Puerto Rico, “The term ‘Commonwealth’ does not describe or provide for any specific political status or relationship.” It would almost seem the word was chosen precisely because, being so vague, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
A member of the John Birch Society once told me he had heard that if the communists tried to take over Pennsylvania, they would argue that “commonwealth” means the declaring of all material wealth to be common in the Marxist materialist sense.
There are differing views today, and probably always have been, about how much of the country’s wealth is private and untouchable, and how much should be available for public purposes, primarily through taxation. On either extreme are the propositions that government should either leave virtually all of it alone, or on the other hand, that government has the right to dispose of almost all of it, should the public good require it. Between the two lies a spectrum of ideas about the proper extent and function of government. Those opposing concepts should, and do, compete in the public forum.
Of course, while “wealth” now usually refers to material and financial assets, the last syllable of “commonwealth” comes from the Old English word “weal,” meaning “well-being.” “Commonwealth” was apparently used quite extensively in the 17th century — during which Pennsylvania was founded — to mean a political community organized for the common good.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ constitution explains it this way: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”
Those who first called Pennsylvania a commonwealth would doubtless have had more immediate experience with monarchs’ claims of a divine right to rule than with the idea of a government chosen by the people. If they failed to define very closely what “wealth” they meant and in what sense it was to be common, perhaps a specific position on the long-term debate about the size or scope of government was not of utmost importance to them.
It may be that the wealth they perceived to be common was the wealth of ideas, the wealth of free expression, the wealth of citizen involvement in defining what we should be — government not as a despotic threat, like the one they were leaving behind, but as an expression of public consensus, however messy and hard-fought that may be. Perhaps, ultimately, the best definition of commonwealth is the right to define it for ourselves.
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