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North Hills Monthly

Why is Pennsylvania called a commonwealth? And what’s the difference between a borough, township and municipality?

Dec 30, 2014 12:10PM ● By Charles Reichblum
There are just four states in the U.S. that officially refer to themselves as commonwealths; they are Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The word ‘commonwealth’ comes from the idea of a government based on the common consent of the people, and refers to the ‘common wealth’ or welfare of the public. 

The four states that chose to call themselves commonwealths were all formed in the early days of the nation. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia were each among the original 13 states, and Kentucky was the 15th state admitted to the Union. Calling themselves commonwealths was a popular idea in those days, stressing the concept of freedom and democracy. Pennsylvania, for example, emphasized the word ‘commonwealth,’ putting it prominently in its constitution and always referring to itself then, and still today, as ‘The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.’

There’s an old trick quiz question, asking how many states there are in the U.S. The obvious, correct answer is 50, but a trickster could say, no, there are just 46 states and four commonwealths. In actuality, though, no matter what they call themselves, those four commonwealths are, of course, really states.    

Now as far as boroughs, townships and municipalities are concerned, Pennsylvania has a complex system of naming places where its citizens live. William Penn started the whole thing with a charter from England’s King Charles II to develop what was then called ‘Sylvania,’ which means ‘beautiful woods.’ The king owed Penn’s father some money, and to pay off that debt, he added Penn’s name to ‘Sylvania, giving us Pennsylvania. (History books don’t tell us whether Penn would rather have had the money or if he was happy enough to have Pennsylvania named after him).

In any case, as cities and towns developed in Pennsylvania, Penn borrowed the terms that were common in England—calling the settlements townships, boroughs and municipalities—terms that live on today. The difference among those terms has to do with the structure of each local government, based on old English definitions for the different types of governing bodies.  

Dr. Knowledge is heard on KDKA and the CBS radio network with his “Knowledge in a Nutshell” feature, and is author of the “Knowledge in a Nutshell” book series. His web site is