Why do we call Massachusetts a ‘commonwealth’? Blame John Adams
The word “commonwealth” is used to refer to Massachusetts at the State House and in state agencies and courthouses. It can pop up in an official document, a state agency logo, or a politician’s lofty speech. The speech Governor Charlie Baker delivers Tuesday night is the “State of the Commonwealth” address.
It’s enough to make you wonder: Why not just call a state a state?
The easy, simple answer is that “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts” is the official name of the state.
The state Constitution plainly lays it out, saying in “Part the Second”: “The people, inhabiting the territory formerly called the Province of Massachusetts Bay, do hereby solemnly and mutually agree with each other, to form themselves into a free, sovereign, and independent body politic, or state by the name of ‘THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.’ ”
Three other states, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, also refer to themselves as “commonwealths.” The term “commonwealth” doesn’t confer any special status on a state.
Here’s the more interesting answer: John Adams in August 1779 was selected as Braintree’s delegate to the state constitutional convention. He was put on the three-man drafting committee and, with his considerable knowledge and talents, selected by the other two members to draw up the constitution. He finished his draft in October 1779 and it was ratified by town meetings in 1780, according to the state court system website.
A previous draft of the state constitution, proposed by the Legislature and rejected, had used the name “State of Massachusetts Bay.”
At the time, the word was used to mean “republic,” and there might have been some antimonarchical sentiment in using it, according to the Massachusetts secretary of state’s website.
Mount Holyoke College emeritus professor Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian who is an expert on America’s founders, said Adams felt that “the word ‘state’ is too abstract and can be used to mean a monarchy. A monarchy is a form of state.”
Adams felt, Ellis said, that “we need to make sure that Massachusetts sends a signal that we are a republic, we are not a monarchy, and the term that describes us has to be a term that precludes any misinterpretation.”
He said Adams believed, as he wrote in the preamble of the state constitution, “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.”
Brown University emeritus professor Gordon S. Wood, a Pulitzer-winning historian of the American Revolution, said attempts in England at republicanism — rule by the people and their representatives — in the 17th century had used the term and English political philosopher James Harrington had celebrated it. (Harrington’s major work was “The Commonwealth of Oceana,” in 1656.)
So, he said in an e-mail, Adams’s use of the word was not extraordinary or original.
Wood noted a letter from Adams sent to an unknown correspondent dated April 27, 1777, in which Adams referred to a “commonwealth” and a “republican government” in the same breath.
Adams spoke of the need in a republican government for a “Desire, to Serve the Public, to promote the Happiness of the People, to increase the Wealth, the Grandeur, and Prosperity of the Community. This, Ambition is but another Name for public Virtue, and public Spirit.”
In a darker passage, he lamented, “We, in America, are So contaminated, with the Selfish Principles of Monarchy, and with that bastard, corrupted Honour, that Monarchy inspires, that We have no Idea, no Conception, no Imagination, no Dream, of the Passions and Principles, which Support Republics. What will become of Us? God knows.”