The State of Virginia, as most residents know but can’t explain, is not really a state, but a commonwealth.
What does that mean? Not much, according to University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard.
“In constitutional and juridical terms, there’s no difference” in the makeup of Virginia and three other commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, Howard said.
“The naked eye can perceive no difference. A state may call itself a commonwealth if it so chooses. The difference is more historical. The commonwealth has certain connotations in political theory,” Howard said.
“The whole idea is that the state acts for the common good. It’s really a term of aspiration, rather than law,” he said.
Howard traced the term to 17th century England, when Charles I was executed in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell created the Commonwealth of England with no king.
“It ended in 1660 with the restoration of the stewards. It was not a very successful venture, and not a very happy precedent,” said Howard.
Today, the term “commonwealth” is “a fancy way of talking about a state. Virginia would not want to be called what everyone else is called,” he said. “It is really purely historical.”