The English noun commonwealth dates from the fifteenth century. The original phrase "common-wealth" or "the common weal" comes from the old meaning of "wealth," which is "well-being". The term literally meant "common well-being". Thus commonwealth originally meant a state or nation-state governed for the common good as opposed to an authoritarian state governed for the benefit of a given class of owners. The word relates to the Latin phrase res publica meaning "public affairs" or "the state", from which the English word republic arises.
Today the term is more general and means a political community.
The type of community indicated by the term commonwealth varies.
For instance, in different contexts it might indicate:
When capitalized, "Commonwealth" normally refers to the 53 member Commonwealth of Nations.
Commonwealth of Nations
The Commonwealth of Nations
— formerly the "British Commonwealth" — is a loose confederation
of nations which were formerly members of the British Empire
(with one exception, Mozambique
, which was a Portuguese possession
). The Commonwealth's membership includes both republics and monarchies. The (appointed, not hereditary) head of the Commonwealth of Nations is Queen Elizabeth II
. She also reigns as monarch directly in a number of states, known as Commonwealth Realms
, notably the United Kingdom
and New Zealand
. The Commonwealth of Nations is sometimes referred to as the New Commonwealth in a British context.
Commonwealth of Independent States
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
left the CIS in August 2008 after a clash with Russia
over South Osetia
. Its creation signaled the dissolution of the Soviet Union
, its purpose being to "allow a civilized divorce" between the Soviet Republics
. The CIS has developed as a forum by which the member-states can co-operate in economics
and foreign policy
The term also served when six Australian colonies federated
to form the Commonwealth of Australia
in 1901. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act
created a federal system, in which power is divided between the federal, or national, government and the States
— the evolved status of the colonies. The Constitution stipulated that Australia was a constitutional monarchy
, where the Head of State
is the British (or, since 1942, Australian) monarch, who is represented at the federal level by a Governor-General, and at the state level by six Governors, one for each state. The Parliament of Australia
was derived from the British, Canadian and American systems to form a uniquely Australian system. It is largely based on the British Westminster System
, adopting many of its practices and precedents, but with a similar structure — House of Representatives
, and Senate
— to the U.S. Congress. In an Australian context, the term "Commonwealth" (capitalised) thus refers to the federal government
and "Commonwealth of Australia" is the official name of the country.
The small Caribbean
republic of Dominica
has used the official style Commonwealth of Dominica
The sovereign Commonwealth Realm The Bahamas uses the official style Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
Countries that formerly used the style Commonwealth
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 kingdoms of Scotland
(after the English Civil War
) under the rule of Oliver Cromwell
and his son and successor Richard
from 1649 to 1660. It formed the first republic
in the English-speaking world
, though this quickly evolved into a de facto monarchy. The Cromwellian Commonwealth is sometimes referred to as the Old Commonwealth in a British context.
Former Labour MP Tony Benn introduced a Commonwealth of Britain Bill several times, which would abolish the monarchy and establish a British republic. It has never reached a second reading.
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
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Commonwealth of Poland
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
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 (see Warsaw Confederation), had its own parliament Sejm (although elections were restricted to the gentry or szlachta) and elected kings, who were bound to certain contracts Pacta conventa from the beginning of the reign. The foundation stones of the Commonwealth (also called the Golden Freedoms) used to be
- free election of the king
- Pacta conventa, a binding pledge agreed to by the King on his election
- rokosz, the right of rebellion against kings who did not rule in accordance with their pledge
- liberum veto (a later development), the right for a single representative to veto the entire proceedings of the Sejm
- confœderatio (confederation), a military organisation of the citizens for the attainment of common political aims.
"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.
Four states in the United States officially designate themselves "commonwealths":
- Kentucky is designated a Commonwealth by the Kentucky Constitution and is known as the "Commonwealth of Kentucky".
- Massachusetts is a Commonwealth, declaring itself as such in its constitution, which states that "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."
- Pennsylvania uses the term "Commonwealth" loosely. The "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" is its official title.
- Virginia has been known as the "Commonwealth of Virginia" since before joining the United States.
U.S. insular areas
"Commonwealth" is also used in the U.S. to describe the political relationship between the United States
and the overseas unincorporated territories
- Commonwealth of Nations
- Commonwealth of Independent States
- United States of America
- Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth