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This article is about the generic term. For the intergovernmental organization, see Commonwealth of Nations. For other uses, see Commonwealth (disambiguation).

Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. Historically it has sometimes been synonymous with "republicanism".

The English noun "commonwealth" in the sense meaning "public welfare; general good or advantage" dates from the 15th century.[1] The original phrase "the common-wealth" or "the common weal" (echoed in the modern synonym "public weal") comes from the old meaning of "wealth", which is "well-being", and is itself a loose translation of the Latin res publica (republic). The term literally meant "common well-being". In the 17th century the definition of "commonwealth" expanded from its original sense of "public welfare" or "commonweal" to mean "a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state".[2]

Three countries – Australia, the Bahamas, and Dominica – have the official title "Commonwealth", as do four US states and two US territories. More recently, the term has been used for fraternal associations of some sovereign nations, most notably the Commonwealth of Nations, an association primarily of former members of the British Empire, which is often referred to as simply "the Commonwealth".

Historical use[edit]


Historian Seutonius refers to the commonwealth in the Twelve Caesars of Rome.


The Commonwealth of England was the official name of the political unit (de facto military rule in the name of parliamentary supremacy) that replaced the Kingdom of England (after the English Civil War) from 1649–53 and 1659–60, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell and his son and successor Richard. From 1653 to 1659, although still legally known as a Commonwealth, the republic, united with the former Kingdom of Scotland, operated under different institutions (at times as a de facto monarchy) and is known by historians as the Protectorate. In a British context, it is sometimes referred to as the "Old Commonwealth".[citation needed]


The Icelandic Commonwealth or the Icelandic Free State (Icelandic: Þjóðveldið) was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Althing in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king in 1262. It was initially established by a public consisting largely of recent immigrants from Norway who had fled the unification of that country under King Harald Fairhair.


Republic is still an alternative translation of the traditional name of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Wincenty Kadłubek (Vincent Kadlubo, 1160–1223) used for the first time the original Latin term res publica in the context of Poland in his "Chronicles of the Kings and Princes of Poland". The name was used officially for the confederal country formed by Poland and Lithuania 1569–1795.

It is also often referred as "Nobles' Commonwealth" (1505–1795, i.e., before the union). In contemporary political doctrine of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, "our state is a Republic (Commonwealth) under presidency of the King". The commonwealth introduced a doctrine of religious tolerance called Warsaw Confederation, had its own parliament Sejm (although elections were restricted to the nobility and elected kings, who were bound to certain contracts Pacta conventa from the beginning of the reign).

"A commonwealth of good counsaile" was the title of the 1607 English translation of the work of Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki "De optimo senatore" that presented to English readers many of the ideas present in the political system of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Current use[edit]

National level[edit]


"Commonwealth" was first proposed as a term for a federation of the six Australian crown colonies at the 1891 constitutional convention in Sydney. Its adoption was initially controversial, as it was associated by some with the republicanism of Oliver Cromwell (see above), but it was retained in all subsequent drafts of the constitution.[3] The term was finally incorporated into law in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1901, which established the federation. Australia operates under a federal system, in which power is divided between the federal (national) government and the state governments (the successors of the six colonies). So, in an Australian context, the term "Commonwealth" (capitalised) refers to the federal government, and "Commonwealth of Australia" is the official name of the country.

The Bahamas[edit]

The Bahamas uses the official style Commonwealth of The Bahamas.


The small Caribbean republic of Dominica has used the official style Commonwealth of Dominica since 1970.

Subnational level[edit]

The term "commonwealth" has one of two political meanings within the United States:

U.S. states[edit]

Four states in the United States officially designate themselves as "commonwealths". All four were original colonies or parts thereof (Kentucky was originally a part of the land grant of the Colony of Virginia) and share a strong influence of colonial common law in some of their laws and institutions. The four are:

  • Kentucky is designated a Commonwealth by the Kentucky Constitution and is known constitutionally as the "Commonwealth of Kentucky".[4]
  • Massachusetts is a Commonwealth,[5] declaring itself as such in its constitution, which states: "[T]he 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."[6]
  • Pennsylvania uses the "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" constitutionally and in its official title.[7]
  • Virginia has been known as the "Commonwealth of Virginia" since before joining the United States, and is referred to as a Commonwealth in its constitution.[8]

U.S. insular areas[edit]

"Commonwealth" is also used in the United States to describe the political relationship between the United States and the overseas unincorporated territories:

International bodies[edit]

Commonwealth of Nations[edit]

The Commonwealth of Nations—formerly the British Commonwealth—is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states, most of which were once part of the British Empire. The Commonwealth's membership includes both republics and monarchies. The head of the Commonwealth of Nations is Queen Elizabeth II, who reigns as monarch directly in 16 member states known as Commonwealth realms.

Commonwealth of Independent States[edit]

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a loose alliance or confederation consisting of 10 of the 15 former Soviet Republics, the exceptions being Turkmenistan (a CIS associate member), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Georgia. Georgia left the CIS in August 2008 after a clash with Russia over South Ossetia. Its creation signalled the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its purpose being to "allow a civilised divorce" between the Soviet Republics. The CIS has developed as a forum by which the member-states can co-operate in economics, defence, and foreign policy.[citation needed]

Proposed use[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

Labour MP Tony Benn sponsored a Commonwealth of Britain Bill several times between 1991 and 2001, intended to abolish the monarchy and establish a British republic. It never reached second reading.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Commonwealth", Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) (, 1989, retrieved 13 March 2010 
  2. ^ "Better things were done, and better managed ... under a Commonwealth than under a King." Pepys, Diary" (1667) "Commonwealth", Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) (, 1989, retrieved 13 March 2010 
  3. ^ Helen Irving. Australian Federation – Civics and Citizenship Education. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
  4. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  5. ^ "Mass.Gov". Mass.Gov. 2013-09-26. Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  6. ^ "Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts". Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  7. ^ "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania | The Keystone State". Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  8. ^ "Home". Retrieved 2013-10-11. 
  9. ^ copyright 2009

External links[edit]