It seems that they did. Or at least believed in something similar. And it would be difficult to find anyone in early America who disagreed with them.
I first thought about the connection between the founders’ view of creation and contemporary defenders of intelligent design when I read Steve Waldman’s Founding Faith. Here is a blog post in which Waldman explores this idea.
Last week I was reading some of Jefferson’s thoughts on religion and was reminded of what Waldman wrote. On April 11, 1823, Jefferson wrote to John Adams:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it’s parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with it’s distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it’s course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.
From this passage it would be hard to argue against the idea that Jefferson believed in an intelligent designer who created the universe. It also seems that Jefferson’s beliefs have not been lost on modern-day defenders of intelligent design.
Ben Franklin was not as specific as Jefferson , but in “On the Providence of God in the Government of the World,” , he made it clear that he believed the universe bore witness to a creator:
It might be judg’d an Affront to your Understandings should I go to prove this first Principle, the Existence of a Deity and that he is the Creator of the Universe, for that would suppose you ignorant of what all Mankind in all Ages have agreed in. I shall therefore proceed to observe: 1. That he must be a Being of great Wisdom: 2. That he must be a Being of great Goodness and 3. That he must be a Being of great Power. That he must be a Being of infinite Wisdom, appears in his admirable Order and Disposition of Things, whether we consider the heavenly Bodies, the Star and Planets, and their wonderful regular Motions, or this Earth compounded of such an Excellent mixture of all the Elements; or the admirable Structure of Animal Bodies of such an infinite Variety, and yet every one adopted to its Nature, and the Way of Life it is to be placed in, whether on Earth, in the Air or in the Waters, and so exactly that the highest and most exquisite human Reason, cannot find a fault…
Franklin assumed that God created the world. He was more interested in what the world told us about God.
I think those who argue today that intelligent design is religion and thus should not be taught in public schools as science are probably right. I wonder if Jefferson and Franklin would agree with me?