The parents of Snellman originally came from the region of Ostrobothnia. At the time of his birth, the family was living in Stockholm, Sweden, but they moved back to Finland when Finland was joined to Russia in 1809.
Snellman wanted to improve the national awareness of Finland and culture by, for example, publishing newspapers. While in Kuopio, he published his nationalistic views in Swedish in the newspaper called Saima and in Finnish in the newspaper called Maamiehen ystävä.
In 1863, Snellman was appointed in the Senate of Finland to be responsible for the national budget. He had a decisive role in accomplishing a language decree on the rights of the Finnish language and completed the monetary reform in Finland in 1865. The Finnish currency, mark, already existed (since 1860) when Snellman became Chief of Finance but the value of it was tied to the paper rouble as the quarter of it. Followed by his trip to St. Petersburg, the mark was again tied to the rouble (the silver rouble standard was dropped after the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854).
The pro-Finnish minded people had already long campaigned for the idea of translating family names into Finnish. The peak of this translation act was reached on the 100-year Jubileum of Snellman on 12 May, 1906 when about 25,000 people had their family name translated into a Finnish name. On the very same day, The Association of Finnish Culture and Identity (Suomalaisuuden liitto) was founded and it considers Snellman to be the guiding father figure of the association.
His image was cast onto a commemorative coin in 2006 issued to mark his 200th birthday. The coin's reverse side depicts a representation of the dawn of the Finnish culture.