The History of the Term “Commonwealth” shows its use in both philosophical and economic settings.
The term “commonwealth” had been in use since the late-15th century, although its meaning has shifted over time. Early translations of the King James version of the bible referred to Israel as a commonwealth and later, Shakespeare’s Henry VI used the term when referring to civil dissension gnawing at the commonwealth.
However, most early uses of the word focused on economic welfare. Sir Edward Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company, called Virginia a commonwealth when discussing the provisions given to the colonies in 1620. It wasn’t until the 17th century that it began to be used in political spheres; with the emergence of Oliver Cromwell’s “Commonwealth of England.”
The Emergence of Political Philosophies in England Served as an Example to George Mason and his Fellow Founders.
The 17th century was a tumultuous time for England, and this was not lost on Virginia’s political class; most of which were descended from begrudged royalists who had found refuge in Virginia from the civil war in England. However, from this conflict arose the great writers and works of English independence.
Pieces such as James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana, Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government served as inspiration to the founders for the creation of our commonwealth on how best to order society. For example, Locke wrote: “In a Constituted Commonwealth…there can be but one supreme power, which is the Legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate.”
This accounts for why recurrent themes in English political writings are also seen in Virginia legislation, specifically the need for checks and balances to prevent creating a centralized power; as well as sovereignty and whether that power was vested in a monarch or in the people.
The Framers were Successful in Creating Legislation That Both Utilized and Challenged Previous Political Writings in Order to Create the Commonwealth.
Whilst designing Virginia’s government the founders sought ways to dissolve political bonds with their mother country, England. They aimed to establish their own system that set forth unalienable rights that had not been afforded to Virginia as a colony. They first passed a Resolution for Independence, next a Declaration of Rights, and finally The Constitution of Virginia. It is important to note that Virginia being referred to as a “commonwealth” in these documents was never amended or edited.
The Declaration of Rights and The Constitution of Virginia as a unitary whole were pivotal in creating the hallmarks of the commonwealth. They implemented ideals such as the prevention of legislative abuse of power, the abolishment of Long Parliament, outlining the powers given to state officials, and the characteristics necessary to maintain the “Blessings of Liberty.” These documents went on to become highly influential to both the U.S national government and those of other countries.
Virginia is and Will Forever be a Commonwealth–if We Can Keep It
The term “commonwealth” is deeply ingrained in the very framework of Virginia's legislative body. Denotation aside, this word has come to represent the healthy relationship between Virginia’s body politic and the general welfare of the people. The founders of this state designated it a commonwealth with this in mind, while also solidifying the philosophical foundation on which Virginia’s government was laid.
Special thanks to Dayani R. Robinson for editorial assistance in drafting this article. Dayani is a student at the University of Virginia, majoring in Political Science; and worked at Smith Strong, PLC from 2023 - 2024.