What’s the deal? Especially in the matter of “commonwealth” of Virginia, Massachusetts? What makes a state a state, The District of Columbia, what the hell is Puerto Rico?

(Sorry, during government class I was smoking pot and hanging out at International House of Pancakes)


This is a non-smoking area. If we see you smoking, we will assume you are on fire and act accordingly.

“State” and “commonwealth” are pretty much synonymous. (Or at least they are in terms of US politics.) It pretty much comes down to what the group wants to call themselves when they write up their constitution. PR is a territory, if I’m not mistaken. I forget what DC technically is.

“Commonwealth” is how a few states style themselves. The word has no bearing on the laws of the U.S. (the 50 states being organized equally by the rules set out in the Constitution).

A State is one of the basic (currently 50) organized subdivisions of the U.S. that basically have the right to govern themselves and to participate (through congressional representatives) in the governing of the U.S. as a whole.

A Territory is a region that has limited self-governing powers, with other rules being handed down directly from Washington, and no voting powers in congress. (There are territories that send “representatives” to congress, but they have no vote.)

A Federal District (such as the District of Columbia, containing Washington), is governed by congress.

A United States Possession (of which we have, thankfully, fewer than we once did) is governed by whatever hodgepodge of rules the congress has imposed on it, although it is usually “administered” by, I believe, the Department of the Interior.


Puerto Rico is “The Free Associated State of Puerto Rico”

“Give the Governor harrumph!”

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, but not like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and others.

In Spanish, it’s “Estado Libre Asociado.”

There is a lot of debate as to what the future status of Puerto Rico will be, but this is probably not the right forum to debate it.

Puerto Rico, Virginia, and the Village of Morton Grove may assign themselves whatever sort of names they choose.

Regardless, Puerto Rico is currently a Territory, Virginia is a State, and Morton Grove is a City.
These are legal distinctions that are not connected to the names they decide to use. California can go back to calling itself the Republic of California (or continue to use that appellation, I don’t recall whether it’s still the official name), but, short of seccession, it is still one of the 50 states of the U.S.


Is there any real difference between a state, a province, and a prefecture?

Cecil has addressed this:

The way I heard it described was like this:

As far as the US is concerned, there’s no difference.

Theoretically, however, “state” is a neutral term–it can mean a “free” state or a dictatorship.

A “commonwealth” is a state that exists for the “common good” of its citizens.


To say nothing of departments, counties, marks (or marches), and sundry other divisions?

This gets the classic response: It depends.

What it depends on is the formation of the government and roles assigned to the geographic divisions within that government. In theory, most of the bodies mentioned here could function in the same way that states of the U.S.A. could function. The country that has a system that is most nearly like the U.S. in that regard is probably Canada. In fact, Canadian provinces have a little more authority within Canada than states do in the U.S., but the general principle of a self-governing body with less authority than the nation applies equally to U.S. states and Canadian provinces. The departments of France are represented by members in parliament, but I am not sure how much self-governing authority they have. German states (they call them anther name, but we usually translate it “state”) have more authority than French departments, but less than U.S. states.

I am not aware that the counties of Great Britain have any serious authority, although I am open to correction on that point.

Basically, since each nation has its own set of rules, the geographic political entities within each nation are going to have different descriptions, rights, responsibilities, etc. You probably have to look at each nation individually to find out how they organize their land.


Ahem. I don’t think so.

The country with a system most nearly like the U.S. in that regard is probably Switzerland.

The original founders (inhabitants of villages in what is now known as Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald) formed a “league of mutual assistance” in 1291, which date is traditionally considered to be the “birth” of Switzerland. From 1291 until 1798, the city-states making up Switzerland were a loosely-based federation with each “canton” (or state) having its own government, but with a federal assembly to decide mostly on military affairs involving all the cantons.

But after many turbulent events, including:
[ul][li]revolutionaries inspired by French’s revolution taking control of the country in 1798[/li][li]Napoleon imposing a constitution and forming the Helvetic Republic[/li][li]recognition of neutrality in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna[/li][li]civil war between Catholic and Protestant in 1847 when Catholics decide to form their own separate alliance[/li][li]federal constitution of 1848[/li][li]revised (and current) federal constitution of 1874[/ul][/li]
Switzerland came to its current state. The constitutions of 1848 and 1874 were directly inspired by the U.S. constitution, so we have a congress divide into senate (two per canton) and house of representatives (proportional to population), a federal executive and judiciary, etc…

Some differences:
The federal executive power is a council of 7 persons, elected by the federal assembly (congress.) One of the members of the federal council becomes president for a year in a “round-robin” fashion. Switzerland currently has a woman president, its first.

Swiss citizenship is granted by the individual “communes” (or cities), not by the federal government (but the federal government reserves the right to disapprove the citizenship application.)

Switzerland has a “referendum” system where a private citizen can organize a country-wide vote on any legislative matter as long as the requisite number of signatures are collected.

Jacques Kilchoer
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

“Regardless, Puerto Rico is currently a Territory, Virginia is a State, and Morton Grove is a City.”

Morton Grove is a village, not a city (assuming that you mean the Morton Grove in Illinois.) Both a city and a village are municipalities, but there are differences in their organization and government.

Australia also based a large part of their governmental organization on that of the United States.

Uncle Cece says, “[l]egally the old-style commonwealths are indistinguishable from states, and from the standpoint of terminological coolness you’ve got states beat by a mile.” But I have to point out that my seventh grade civics class taught me differently.

What I was taught was that in Virginia, and the other Commonwealths as well, criminal charges may be initiated “by the Commonwealth” against a suspect in the absence of an individual pressing charges. A Commonwealth can initiate civil suits under similar circumstances.

In other words, the Commonwealth of Virginia can prosecute you for assault even if you’ve scared your spouse into silence. The way I learned it, States don’t do that.

(Natually, this whole argument falls apart if this legal procedure is not unique to all of the “Commonwealth” states, and is absent in all other States. I’m not holding my breath on being correct. Sorry for not backing you up all the way, Mrs. Sanders. You shouldn’t have tacked that minus onto my A.)


I was going on the word of my uncle who lived there from 1963 through 1988. He used to sneer at the silliness of putting the word “village” into the name of a city of over 25,000 people. What is the actual difference in law (if any) between Morton Grove and Downer’s Grove or Chicago?

Jacques Raymond Kilchoer, in the context of this discussion, (What are the geopolitical entities within a nation?), it would seem that Canada and Switzerland are closer than either is to the U.S. (And that the U.S. states are only roughly similar to provinces and cantons.) The Cantons appear to have rather more autonomy than U.S. states do. The organization at the federal level may be quite similar, but authority vested in the cantons or provinces seem to be rather different.


tomndebb says:

I suppose you’re right. If you consider the “degree of independence” of the country “sub-units”, perhaps Switzerland is closer to Canada than the U.S. Can you think of an example of a “province right” that a Canadian province would have, but a U.S. state wouldn’t? Then maybe I could tell you if that applies to Switzerland also.

Switzerland based its constitution on the U.S. constitution. Did Canada do the same? (Does Canada even have a constitution?)

Jacques Kilchoer
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Tomndeb says:

{quote}I was going on the word of my uncle who lived there from 1963 through 1988. He used to sneer at the silliness of putting the word “village” into the name of a city of over 25,000 people. What is the actual difference in law (if any) between Morton Grove and Downer’s Grove or Chicago?{/quote}

In Illinois, there are some differences, but fewer than there used to be. The steps necessary to set up a municipality vary slightly depending on which form (City vs. Village) the organizers choose. Once the municipality is formed, it will be governed by a village board and village president (if it is a village) or a city council (made up of aldermen) and mayor (if it is a city).
Village boards are elected at large (meaning that all voters vote for all board positions.) Cities are divided into wards, each of which elects an alderman. Village boards consist of 6 members only (plus the president.) Cities can have more than 6 aldermen. There are other ways that the two forms vary, but nothing of any real significance. Further, most of the differences between the two forms be changed if the municipality chooses, especially if the municipality qualifies for home rule status under the state constitution. Home rule status allows a municipality more legislative power. The most meaningful difference between municipalities in Illinois today is home rule vs. non home rule, not city vs. village.

Finally, there is no limit on the size of a village. Glenview (a suburb of Chicago adjacent to Morton Grove) has about 40,000 villagers (a term that rarely gets used.) Most residents don’t own even one pitchfork, and the last farm there is more like a working museum.

(Sneaking a quick glance at the lovely Bear Flag flying across the street) Actually, the term was “California Republic” as it says on the flag in use today.

But why do they leave the word ‘Republic’ on that flag today? It hasn’t been a republic since 1850. So take it off. Then, if the nonverbal part of the flag is unique, I don’t see why one would want the word ‘California’ on the flag. Lettering is ugly on flags. So take it off. And then, that’s a grizzly bear. There haven’t been any grizzly bears (at least outside of zoos) in California since. . .well, something like a century. So take it off. At that point, we have a nice white piece of cloth. Hey, that’s the flag of surrender! I give up.

But then, I don’t think California should be only one state; it should be 2 or 3. But its citizens have never been able to break it up. However, these days it has acquired a very overbearing clout from sheer numeracy of population, so I don’t understand why the rest of the nation doesn’t split it up. And you can give the southern half of it back to Mexico, for all I care. It claims to be the 7th largest political economic unit in the world, and its state and local officials constantly run around the world acting in the role of official economic emissaries. The trouble is: It’s like – living here is a situation of being tromped upon by two out-of-control regimes at once (not to mention out-of-control counties and cities and regional governments).

Sofa King:

I don’t understand that. States prosecute people all the time for state, and even local, crimes against whatever, and I read of cases in CA-US all the time that are spousal abuse or other types of assault. I’m sure DAs have the option to do such, in the case of any state or local crime. If the state had sufficient evidence against someone for murder, would you expect it to search around for someone to “press charges”?

Ray (Protect my right to no Bear Flags, Señor.)

Forgive my ignorance, and i know this is slightly off the point, but what exactly is the US interest in Puerto Rico? And what is the long term plan…will it eventually achieve statehood?

Puerto Rico is not a state nor is it independent because the people like the situation just as it is.

Plus with the current political situation in the USA, the way it is, the only way we’ll get a new state is if one party is overwhelmingly in power and the new state wanting to come in, will most likely be of that party in power.

This hasn’t happened yet.