The idea of "woe to the conquered" is vividly expressed in Homer, in the hawk parable from Hesiod's Works and Days, and in Livy, in which the equivalent Latin phrase "vae victis" is first recorded.
The idea, though not the wording, has been attributed to the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient historian Thucydides, who stated that "right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
In the first chapter of Plato's Republic, Thrasymachus claims that "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger", which Socrates then disputes. Callicles in Gorgias argues similarly that the strong should rule the weak, as a right owed to their superiority.
The first commonly quoted use of “might makes right” in English was in 1846 by the American pacifist and abolitionist Adin Ballou (1803–1890), who wrote, "But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of discomfited error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. 'Might makes right,' and hoary folly totters on in her mad career escorted by armies and navies." (Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended, 1846.)
Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union campaign address (1860) reverses the phrase: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it". He spoke in defense of neutral engagement with slave-holders, as against violent confrontation.
Montague coined the term Kratocracy, from the Greek κρατερός krateros, meaning "strong", for government by those who are strong enough to seize power through force or cunning.
In a letter to Albert Einstein from 1932, Sigmund Freud also explores the history and validity of "might versus right".