commonwealth, form of administration signifying government by the common consent of the people. To Locke and Hobbes and other 17th-century writers the term meant an organized political community similar to what is meant in the 20th cent. by the word state. Certain states of the United States are known as commonwealths (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky), and the federated states of Australia are known collectively as the Commonwealth of Australia. In the same collective sense, the now independent components of the former British Empire and Britain's remaining dependencies are described as the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth in English history was the government set up by the victorious army power following the English civil war and the execution (1649) of King Charles I. The Commonwealth was dominated from the outset by Oliver Cromwell, who by the Instrument of Government (1653) was made lord protector of the Commonwealth. The subsequent government is usually known as the Protectorate, though the Commonwealth formally continued until Restoration in 1660.

Body politic founded on law for the common “weal,” or good. The term was often used by 17th-century writers to signify an organized political community, its meaning thus being similar to the modern meaning of state or nation. Today it primarily refers to the Commonwealth. Four U.S. states (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) call themselves commonwealths, a distinction in name only. Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth rather than a state since 1952; its residents, though U.S. citizens, have only a nonvoting representative in Congress and pay no federal taxes.

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Self-governing commonwealth (pop., 2005 est.: 80,400) in political union with the U.S., in the western Pacific Ocean. Composed of 22 islands north of Guam, the Northern Marianas extend 450 mi (720 km) and have an area of 184 sq mi (477 sq km). The capital, Chalan Kanoa, is on Saipan. Saipan, Tinian, and Rota are the principal inhabited islands. Others include Alamagan and Agrihan; Pagan was evacuated for a time after a 1981 volcanic eruption. The indigenous people are Micronesian; other inhabitants are Chamorro and Filipino. The islands were discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. They were colonized by Spain in 1668. Sold by Spain to Germany in 1899, they were occupied by Japan in 1914 and became a Japanese mandate from the League of Nations after 1919. They were the scene of fierce fighting in World War II; Tinian was the base for U.S. planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Northern Marianas were granted to the U.S. as a UN trust territory in 1947 and became self-governing in 1978 (when the residents became U.S. citizens). The UN trusteeship ended in 1986.

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Free association of sovereign states formed in 1991, comprising Russia and 11 other republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Members are Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. Its administrative center is in Minsk, Belarus. The Commonwealth's functions are to coordinate its members' policies regarding their economies, foreign relations, defense, immigration policies, environmental protection, and law enforcement.

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State (pop., 2006: 1,959,088), western Australia. Covering 976,790 sq mi (2,529,880 sq km), it constitutes one-third of the continent's area but has only about one-tenth of Australia's population; its capital is Perth. The extensive interior region has three deserts: Great Sandy, Gibson, and Great Victoria. The coast along the Timor Sea and Indian Ocean has only a few good harbours; notable inlets are Joseph Bonaparte and Exmouth gulfs. Australian Aboriginal peoples have occupied Western Australia for about 40,000 years. The western coast was first visited in 1616 by the Dutch; it was later explored by Englishman William Dampier in 1688 and 1699. In 1829 Capt. James Stirling led the first group of settlers there to establish Australia's first nonconvict colony. The discovery of gold in 1886 prompted a movement for constitutional autonomy, which was granted in 1890. In 1900 it was the last state to ratify the newly constituted Commonwealth of Australia. Initially it suffered from slow growth, but since 1960 its economy, fueled by agriculture and mining (notably of fossil fuels), has been expanding.

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State (pop., 2006: 1,514,337), south-central Australia. It covers an area of 379,725 sq mi (983,482 sq km), and its capital is Adelaide. The Dutch visited the coast in 1627. British explorers arrived in the early 1800s, and it was colonized as a British province in 1836. Its vast interior, a large part of which is barren, includes Lake Eyre and the Flinders Ranges. A major world source of opals, it also produces most of the wine and brandy consumed in Australia. It has the country's largest shipyards. It became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Its southeastern part has become industrialized since World War II.

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officially Commonwealth of Australia

Smallest continent and sixth largest country (in area) on Earth, lying between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Area: 2,969,978 sq mi (7,692,208 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 20,345,000. Capital: Canberra. Most Australians are descendants of Europeans. The largest nonwhite minority is the Australian Aborigine population. The Asian portion of the population has grown as a result of relaxed immigration policy. Language: English (official). Religions: Christianity (mostly Protestant; also Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, other Christians), Buddhism, Islam. Currency: Australian dollar. Australia has three major physiographic regions. More than half of its land area is on the Western Australian plateau, which includes the outcrops of Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys in the northwest and the Macdonnell Ranges in the east. A second region, the Interior Lowlands, lies east of the plateau. The Eastern Uplands, which include the Great Dividing Range, are a series of high ridges, plateaus, and basins. The country's highest point is Mount Kosciusko in the Australian Alps, and the lowest is Lake Eyre. Major rivers include the Murray-Darling system, the Flinders and Swan rivers, and Cooper Creek. There are many islands and reefs along the coast, including the Great Barrier Reef, Melville Island, Kangaroo Island, and Tasmania. Australia is rich in mineral resources, including coal, petroleum, and uranium. A vast diamond deposit was found in Western Australia in 1979. The country's economy is basically free enterprise; its largest components include finance, manufacturing, and trade. Formally a constitutional monarchy, its chief of state is the British monarch, represented by the governor-general. In reality it is a parliamentary state with two legislative houses; its head of government is the prime minister. Australia has long been inhabited by Aborigines, who began arriving at least 50,000 years ago. Estimates of the population at the time of European settlement in 1788 range from 300,000 to 1,000,000. Widespread European knowledge of Australia began with 17th-century explorations. The Dutch landed in 1616 and the British in 1688, but the first large-scale expedition was that of James Cook in 1770, which established Britain's claim to Australia. The first British settlement, at Port Jackson (1788), consisted mainly of convicts and seamen; convicts were to make up a large proportion of the incoming settlers. By 1859 the colonial nuclei of all Australia's states had been formed, but with devastating effects on the indigenous peoples, whose populations declined sharply with the introduction of European diseases. Britain granted its colonies limited self-government in the mid-19th century, and an act federating the colonies into a commonwealth went into effect in 1901. Australia fought alongside the British in World War I, notably at Gallipoli, and again in World War II, preventing Australia's occupation by the Japanese. It joined the U.S. in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Since the 1960s the government has sought to deal more fairly with the Aborigines, and a loosening of immigration restrictions has led to a more heterogeneous population. Constitutional links allowing British interference in government were formally abolished in 1968, and Australia has assumed a major role in Asian and Pacific affairs. During the 1990s there were several debates about giving up its British ties and becoming a republic.

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or Commonwealth of Nations

Free association of sovereign states consisting of Britain and many of its former dependencies who have chosen to maintain ties of friendship and cooperation. It was established in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster as the British Commonwealth of Nations. Later its name was changed and it was redefined to include independent nations. Most of the dependent states that gained independence after 1947 chose Commonwealth membership. The British monarch serves as its symbolic head, and meetings of the more than 50 Commonwealth heads of government take place every two years. Seealso British empire.

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Political party prominent in western Canada in the 1930s and '40s. It was founded in Calgary, Alta., in 1932 by a federation of farm, labour, and socialist parties to transform the capitalist system into a “cooperative commonwealth” by democratic means. It called for the socialization of banks and public ownership of transportation, communication, and natural resources. It won the general election in Saskatchewan in 1944 and took over the provincial government. It won further Saskatchewan elections but declined elsewhere. In 1961 it merged with the New Democratic Party.

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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, Australia, Canada, Jamaica 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, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Georgia. Georgia 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, defense 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 since 1970.

The Bahamas

The sovereign Commonwealth Realm The Bahamas uses the official style Commonwealth of The Bahamas.

Countries that formerly used the style Commonwealth

Great Britain

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 and England (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

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 (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.

United States

U.S. states

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:

See also

External links

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