The Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship

25 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2009 Last revised: 30 Dec 2010

See all articles by Robert L. Tsai

Robert L. Tsai

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: December 29, 2010


As a body of work, the poetry of Langston Hughes presents a vision of how members of a political community ought to comport themselves, particularly when politics yield few tangible solutions to their problems. Confronted with human degradation and bitter disappointment, the best course of action may be to abide by the ethics of melancholy citizenship. A mournful disposition is associated with four democratic virtues: candor, pensiveness, fortitude, and self-abnegation. Together, these four characteristics lead us away from democratic heartbreak and toward political renewal. Hughes’s war-themed poems offer a richly layered example of melancholy ethics in action. They reveal how the fight for liberty can be leveraged for the ends of equality. When we analyze the artist’s reworking of Franklin Roosevelt’s orations in the pursuit of racial justice, we learn that writing poetry can be an exercise in popular constitutionalism.

Keywords: citizen, war, fdr, roosevelt, popular constitutionalism, langston hughes, poetry, ethics, melancholy, democracy, politics

Suggested Citation

Tsai, Robert L., The Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship (December 29, 2010). Oregon Law Review, Vol. 89, p. 557, 2010, American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2010-13, Available at SSRN:

Robert L. Tsai (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States


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