On January 24, 1848, a young carpenter named James Marshall discovered a bit of shiny yellow metal in Coloma, a sleepy little town in the center of what was about to become the state of California. Within a year some 300,000 men, women and children had poured into the territory in hopes of striking it rich. Only a tiny percentage did so (Marshall himself was forced off his land and died penniless), but the dream endured.

According to Texas A&M professor H.W. Brands, in his fascinating book The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, the “California Dream” spread to the rest of the country and in time became the essence of the American Dream.

But that isn’t how things started. The original American Dream, says Brands, “was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s [Almanack] … of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year.”

While George Washington is revered as the “father of his country,” it’s Franklin who is most closely identified with the roots of the modern American character, a sober mix of practical values—thrift, hard work, self-discipline and a devotion to education—with an Enlightenment zeal for scientific innovation and categorical opposition to authoritarian rule.

All traits that have a mighty familiar ring to network marketers. And yet we too have our version of Gold Rush impulse.

This is the internal conflict bred into the American experience, and it is woven through the DNA of the network marketing dream. Franklin versus Marshall; hard work and a frugal appreciation of modest gains, versus the dream of instant wealth won by boldness, pluck and timing.

But wealth, as it turns out, is a highly malleable thing.

Franklin’s two Declaration of Independence colleagues, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both died on the same day (July 4, 1826, the Declaration’s fiftieth anniversary). Adams, a lawyer from a frugal New England farming family, never made much money; Jefferson, the plantation owner, was the picture of wealthy aristocracy. Yet on their deathbeds, Adams had managed to amass a net worth of about $100,000. Jefferson was $100,000 in debt.

One of Franklin’s most enduring sayings, usually misquoted these days as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” actually read, “A penny saved is twopence dear.” In other words, if you take some modest earnings and save the money instead of squandering it, you can double it; sort of a self-generated gold rush.

Perhaps the dream’s reality lies somewhere in between the nugget and the penny: there is a bit of gold in them thar hills—but it doesn’t have to take much to make you rich.

JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor to Networking Times.