Curious Louisville

There are four states in the U.S. that call themselves commonwealths, and Kentucky is the only one that wasn’t one of the 13 original colonies. But there’s no difference between commonwealths and the other 46 states in the union. So why did Kentucky decide to call itself a Commonwealth?

Professor Tom Appleton from Eastern Kentucky University says the answer starts with our neighbor to the east. “Virginia being a commonwealth, that was just sort of our heritage,” Appleton says.

National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

Back when the colonies declared their independence from England, Kentucky was still a part of Virginia, which extended from its current borders all the way out to the Mississippi River. Virginia’s founders decided to call their state a commonwealth — a term that had become popularized during the short-lived reign of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th Century England.

“His government was called the Commonwealth — they beheaded the King and got rid of the monarchy, they declared that England was a commonwealth,” Appleton says. “The word emphasizes that here, the people rule.”

The Commonwealth of England only lasted from 1649 until 1660 when the monarchy was restored. But English colonists who migrated to North America held on to the term, and when the seeds of revolution sprouted in 1776, Virginia called itself a commonwealth.

“We are so county-oriented in Kentucky because they are in Virginia also,” Appleton explains. “So I think that’s just another legacy of having been a part of Virginia.”

Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are the country’s other two commonwealths.

In 1792, Virginia’s Kentucky County became its own state, and also decided to take on the name “commonwealth.”

But there’s actually nothing that sets commonwealths apart from the other states, except a bit of flourish. State officials — especially governors — love referring to Kentucky’s status as a commonwealth in formal speeches.

Appleton, who used to write speeches for governors, calls that habit, “a little bit precious.”

“I think sometimes governors like to use commonwealth because, you know, it’s kind of cute,” Appleton says. “Or, you know, that it’s just emphasizing again that we’re a little bit distinctive.”

So, long story short, commonwealths are just like states, except they’ve got a lot more style.

This Curious Louisville question was submitted by listener Lori Hillegas. Listen to the answer in the player above, download this story, and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to submit your own question, at curiouslouisville.org!

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.