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In Slavery in Massachusetts, Thoreau writes:

Among measures to be adopted, I would suggest to make as earnest and vigorous an assault on the press as has already been made, and with effect, on the church. The church has much improved within a few years; but the press is almost, without exception, corrupt. I believe that, in this country, the press exerts a greater and a more pernicious influence than the church did in its worst period. We are not a religious people, but we are a nation of politicians. We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper. At any meeting of politicians,—like that at Concord the other evening, for instance,—how impertinent it would be to quote from the Bible! how pertinent to quote from a newspaper or from the Constitution! The newspaper is a Bible which we read every morning and every afternoon, standing and sitting, riding and walking. It is a Bible which every man carries in his pocket, which lies on every table and counter, and which the mail, and thousands of missionaries, are continually dispersing. It is, in short, the only book which America has printed, and which America reads. So wide is its influence. The editor is a preacher whom you voluntarily support. Your tax is commonly one cent daily, and it costs nothing for pew hire.

What does the author mean by pew hire? At first, I thought that Thoreau may refer here to hiring a readership of a newspaper - but why would that cost nothing? I get it that with the advancements of the technology of printing it may cost very little, but Thoreau himself seems to recognize such cost, Your tax is commonly one cent daily, [...].

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In this piece Thoreau is comparing the press with the church. The newspaper is equated with the Bible, the newspaper editor is identified with a preacher, and the cost of the newspaper ("one cent daily") is related to the taxes levied to support the church and clergy (such as a tithe).

A "pew" is a long wooden seat with a high back, on which a row of people sit in a church. If a rich or important family wants to reserve a pew for their personal use, for example, if they all want to sit together in the front row, they can do so by paying a pew-hire. Pew-hire was especially common in the United States as a means for the church to raise income, as churches lacked governmental support through mandatory tithing. Thoreau contrasts this with the case of reading a newspaper. A person wanting to listen to the preacher, i.e. read the newspaper articles, can sit anywhere they want at no cost - in their house, in a park, or at a bench in the street. No pew-hire is required.

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  • It might be useful to note that the practice of hiring or renting a pew was already controversial in some circles at that time, and died out in the twentieth century. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pew#Pew_rents
    – MJ713
    Apr 29, 2023 at 14:24

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