Monday, May 8, 2023

What is a commonwealth and why is Massachusetts considered one?

Have you ever wondered what the term “commonwealth” means or why Massachusetts is considered one? You aren’t alone; we get that question fairly often here in the Reference Department! 

The short answer is: because of the Massachusetts Constitution. Let's dig a little deeper though and look at the history as to how this came about. From the years 1776 to 1780, the phrase “the State of Massachusetts Bay” was used at the top of all Acts and Resolves. Leading up to 1780, the term “Commonwealth” was popular when referring to “a whole body of people constituting a nation or state.” Some political writers even preferred this term and the usage of this term may also have been a reference to anti-monarchic sentiment. In 1780, however, the Massachusetts Constitution went into effect. Part 2 of the Constitution states “that the people ... form themselves into a free, sovereign, and independent body politic, or state by the name of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts." From there on out, Massachusetts legally became known as a commonwealth because it was written in the Constitution as such. Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky also called their states commonwealths.

Image of Massachusetts Constitution,
courtesy of Mass. State Archives

It’s important to note that commonwealths are states, but states are not commonwealths. States and commonwealths are equal, however, and one does not have any special political status or a different kind of legal relationship to the rest of the country than the other does. Being a commonwealth just comes down to the question of whether or not the term was used in a state’s constitution.

The Massachusetts Constitution, written by John Adams in 1780, is the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. It served as a model for the Constitution of the United States, which was written in 1787 and went into effect in 1789.

Check out our webpage to find out why this term may have been used and what John Adams’ thoughts may have been while framing the Constitution. Merriam-Webster has some information on this as well. If you’re interested to read more about the history of the Constitution and Massachusetts, be sure to check out this website. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at if you have any questions about this or another topic!

Jessica Shrey
Reference Librarian