Think of Virginia, and most people conjure up visions of colonial Williamsburg. Virginia’s origins actually date to the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. Many non-Virginians also bring to mind images of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Shenandoah River.
While Virginia is one of the 50 U.S. states, its official name is the Commonwealth of Virginia.
According to a Factpack produced by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the official title doesn’t mean that the form of government is different from that of any of the other 49 states. Three other states share the title of Commonwealth as part of their official names: Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
The first known use of Commonwealth in Virginia dates to Governor George Yeardley. He authorized the first meeting of the General Assembly at Jamestown in 1619. Its purpose was “for the better establishing of a commonwealth here,” the Factpack notes.
It’s also possible that the introduction of the name related to the current government of England. Between the years 1649 and 1660, England was ruled under Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. There was no king to rule over England or Virginia during that time. Instead, the English government was known as the “Commonwealth of England.” This style of reference stopped when Charles II took the English throne in 1660.
During the Colonia period, Virginia was officially designated as the Colony and Dominion of Virginia. Today, it’s commonly referred to as the Old Dominion.
When the 13 colonies split from England during the Revolution, the name changed. Delegates met at a convention in Williamsburg on June 29, 1776 and adopted the first Constitution of Virginia. They used the name Commonwealth in referring to the new form of government. Speculation among historians suggests that the delegates chose this name in recognition of the Puritans’ rebellion against the English Crown more than a century earlier.
The split from England appears to also play a major role in the choice of the two of the other jurisdictions’ use of the word Commonwealth in their official names. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania incorporated the word after the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. The remaining 10 chose the word state, which appeared in the Declaration of Independence.
Kentucky, once a part of Virginia, kept the name Commonwealth upon entering the Union in 1792 as the fifteenth state.
Interestingly, the territory of Puerto Rico also refers to itself as a Commonwealth. However, in that instance, the term relates to the decision of the Puerto Rican people to freely associate with the United States.
Source: Factpack site