Uncovering the origins of “Under All Is the Land…”

Arthur H. Barnhisel, 1924 chair of the NAR Ethics Committee, and author of the Code’s preamble.

One hundred years have passed since a key document in the REALTOR® organization’s history first made its debut.  Written in 1913, the Code of Ethics was seen as a declaration of the real estate industry’s principles and beliefs, a “golden thread” uniting those devoted to raising the standards of professionalism and service in real estate.

The Code is a living document that undergoes regular revision to keep it updated and relevant as the real estate industry evolves, so today’s Code of Ethics looks much different from the one that was adopted in 1913.  Even so, REALTORS® are often surprised to see that the words “Under all is the land,” the familiar opening of the Code’s preamble, are nowhere to be found in the original version.

So where did the preamble come from, and who wrote it?

The Code of Ethics was over a decade old before the preamble was introduced.  In 1924, the National Association’s committee assigned with revising and modernizing the Code decided that the rules should have an introduction, and prepared two versions of a preamble for consideration.

The first version, written by A. S. Adams, a REALTOR® from Atlanta, GA, took the form of a straightforward personal pledge: “I, a member of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, accept as the primary requirement for engaging in the Real Estate Business that my first duty is to the public whom I propose to serve, and the protection of whose interests must always be my first consideration….”

Adams’ preamble was not nearly as poetic and visionary as the second version presented before the committee.  Written by the committee’s chairman, a prominent REALTOR® and Presbyterian minister from Tacoma, WA, named Arthur H. Barnhisel, this preamble took a different tack, “setting forth the social responsibility of the association and of the local real estate boards who make up its membership.”

With its inspirational portrayal of the nation’s land and the REALTOR®’s role in ensuring its “highest use” and “widest distribution,” Barnhisel’s preamble easily won the committee’s vote.  With little debate and only a few minor edits, the preamble was included along with several other revisions to the Code that were accepted by the National Association’s Board of Directors at its June 1924 meeting in Washington, DC.

As far as we’ve been able to find in the NAR Archives, Barnhisel never explained how he came up with his version of the preamble or revealed his sources of inspiration for the language. Among REALTORS®, though, the preamble quickly became the Code’s best-known feature and was proudly displayed on the walls and in the windows of real estate offices across the country.  By 1943, NAR president Cyrus Crane Willmore declared in a speech before the association’s Board of Directors: “Property ownership is fundamental to our way of life.  The first five words of our Code of Ethics should be impressed upon the minds of every man, woman and child in our country. They are, ‘Under all is the Land.’”

A quote from the Preamble to the REALTORS® Code of Ethics on the wall of a real estate office in Lansing, MI, in 1944.

The Code of Ethics was revised again in 1955, and it included, among other changes, a rewritten preamble.  The new preamble tried to preserve the ideals expressed in the original, using modernized language that was more in tune with the post-war 1950s.

REALTORS® were largely unhappy with the changes made to their beloved preamble, though, and in 1961 the National Association took steps to return it to its original form as written by Arthur H. Barnhisel.  “A return to this wording is proposed because of its superior phrasing,” explained the report to the Board of Directors.

With the exception of those six years, the preamble remained exactly as Barnhisel wrote it for nearly seven decades.  The preamble as we know it today took shape in 1994, when the first six Articles of the Code were incorporated into the preamble, adding paragraphs regarding the REALTOR®’s obligation to share their professional knowledge and stressing the importance of maintaining a spirit of cooperation with other real estate professionals.

Frederik Heller

Managing Director of Information Services at the National Association of REALTORS®.

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  1. Teresita Najito

    Very inspiring.

  2. Teresita Najito

    Very inspiring

  3. Rajni Sardana

    Very informative.

  4. Joanne Davies

    1908 to 1913 is a time in our country when many ethical laws were passed. It is inspiring to know that the real estate industry was in the forefront of this movement.

  5. Stephen Krivisky

    Very interesting how the original wording touched a chord for today’s Realtors.

  6. David Nigrelli

    Real estate principles and beliefs still enforced!

  7. Joseph A. Brown

    Very interesting and well needed to maintain our professionalism in our industry

  8. yvette

    Great Historical account, it’s always a pleasure learning about how things came about.

  9. Judy Romeo

    Very interesting and helpfull

  10. Judy Romeo

    Very interesting and helpful on the history of Real Estate

  11. 1908 to 1913 is a time in our country when many ethical laws were passed. It is inspiring to know that the real estate industry was in the forefront of this movement.

  12. very informative
    1908 to 1913 is a time in our country when many ethical laws were passed. It is inspiring to know that the real estate industry was in the forefront of this movement.

  13. fred levy

    interesting read