QUESTION: I remember reading somewhere that John F. Kennedy quoted Chesterton as saying something about not taking a fence down until you know the reason why it was put it up. I think the idea was if someone says they don’t understand why something is the way it is and wants to destroy or change it, don’t let them. Any help?
ANSWER: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations says that the quotation, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up,” was ascribed to Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945 notebook. (Bartlett is not a very good source for Chesterton quotations, by the way: a pitifully small selection, and citations like this one, that reflect zero research. But then, that’s why we’re here!)
The quotation you’re looking for is from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.