Josiah Quincy famously wrote that, “Of the multitudinous family of Smith, from Adam down (Adam of the “Wealth of Nations,” I mean), none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent today, and the end is not yet.” Was he right? And does this still hold true today? Where does Joseph rank, within the multitudinous family of Smith, in present-day influence?
The obvious competitor for the crown of Most Influential Smith is already mentioned in the quote: Adam Smith. The Scottish-born Adam Smith is known as the Father of Economics, singlehandedly creating an important disclipline that continues to affect the way that many politicians, scholars, and business people interact with the world. Smith’s ideas affect many more people indirectly as economic policies, put into place by elites, affect the everyday lives of billions of people worldwide. Smith’s role in launching the discipline of economics was vital. He wasn’t a bad economist, either; while a good deal of modern economics depends on later thinkers (such as Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman), some of Smith’s particular insights (the invisible hand) have held up quite well over time. Does this make Adam Smith more influential than Joseph Smith? Probably.
Who else is there? One other name of interest is Al Smith, the powerful politician who won the Democratic nominee for U.S. President in 1928. As the first Roman Catholic to win a major party nomination, Al Smith played an important role in shaping prewar U.S. politics and societal attitudes about religion. This has had long-lasting effects on U.S. politics. Overall, though, it’s very hard to say that he was more influential than Joseph.
After all, consider the range of Joseph Smith’s influence. He founded a religion, yes. Beyond that, his actions had important indirect effects on the settlement of the western United States and on the development of major principles of Constititutional law and U.S. politics. Between Reynolds and Smoot, Joseph Smith may be as important as Al Smith in domestic politics alone; add in the religious and demographic influences, and there’s no question that Joseph is more important.
Beyond Adam and Al, the cupboard is relatively bare, isn’t it? There are a number of modestly important politicians, artists, athletes, and others with the surname Smith, but none of particular import. (Am I missing any?) Adam aside, Joseph is probably the most influential Smith.
It seems that others agree. The Atlantic recently compiled a list of the 100 most influential Americans. Joseph is the only Smith to make the list.
(Some of Quincy’s other predictions have not held up so well. Quincy suggested that it might be possible that Joseph Smith would be considered the most influential 19th-century American. That seems unlikely today. Just to cite one outsider perspective, The Atlantic’s list contains a score of 19th-century figures above Joseph Smith: Lincoln, Edison, Twain, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Carnegie, Walt Whitman, Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, and on and on.)