- Like its close cognate Commonweal, the term commonwealth implies the idea of a common good. The word came into use in the seventeenth century to name states deriving their legitimacy from a claim to pursue that good, as against legitimacy based on royal or prescriptive right. The term thus had republican connotations. The Commonwealth of England was the formal name of the English republic of Oliver Cromwell, and after the American Revolution former colonies such as Massachusetts named themselves commonwealths. The term was used occasionally in the pre-1914 period as a synonym for the British Empire, especially by those who wanted to emphasize its constitutional nature.The Balfour Declaration of 1926 recognized all the dominions as being of equal status within “the British Commonwealth of Nations,” and became for a generation something of a synonym for the British Empire, particularly in discussions pertaining to the emigrant dominions. After World War II, the adjective British was dropped, and the Commonwealth devolved in the rather ethereal entity it is today. The name, which once clothed absolute authority, in the twentieth century served thinly to camouflage the dissolution of power.FURTHER READING:Mansergh, Nicholas. The Commonwealth Experience. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.MARK F. PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.