Born in Hillsborough, Holden began an apprenticeship at the Hillsborough Recorder newspaper for a six-year period before turning his attention to law and gaining admission to the bar in 1841, with no formal education. Holden, however, still preferred journalism to jurisprudence, and in 1843 he purchased the North Carolina Standard, assumed editorial responsibilities, and shifted its political commentary to one of Democratic opinion.
As the North Carolina Standard subscription rates increased across the state, so did Holden’s popularity and political appeal. In 1843, Holden was elected to the North Carolina Democratic Party State Executive Committee, which was later followed by an election to the North Carolina House of Commons, representing Wake County. However, as the years passed, Holden’s role as an articulate commentator for the Democrats stagnated; when he tried to secure loftier political goals (the gubernatorial race of 1858 and a subsequent Senate race), Holden was denied by the voters and by his political allies. Moreover, when Holden’s views on slavery’s expansion and the constitutional right to secession emerged during 1840s and 1850s, he fell out of favor with the Democrats.
When civil war seemed imminent, Holden was sent by Wake County citizens to a State Convention to vote against secession, ultimately to no avail. Even though Holden eventually voted in favor of secession, while the war progressed, he began to castigate the Confederate government and tried to rally support for a peace movement in North Carolina. Hoping to facilitate these public actions as a catapult back to public office, Holden ran for the governor’s seat in 1862, again losing the race.
After the war ended, President Johnson appointed Holden as a provincial governor with the hope that he could stabilize the state as Reconstruction commenced. This post was brief, as Holden again lost an election in 1865 to Jonathan Worth, but the short time Holden spent holding office inspired him to push one last time for governor. In 1868, Holden finally secured the gubernatorial seat as a member of the Republican Party.
For Holden, the Reconstruction Era proved to represent an unfriendly time in which civic discontent in the South trumped reform efforts. As governor, Holden’s attempts to curb Ku Klux Klan activity were met with firm resistance by many who wanted to deny African-Americans suffrage. This conflict culminated in a bloody feud known as the Kirk-Holden War. This war and Holden’s action incensed enough North Carolinians to create a political backlash. Arrested and charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” Holden became the second governor in the history of the United States, and the first in North Carolina history, to suffer impeachment.
In his post-Governor days, Holden edited a newspaper in Washington D.C. and later returned to Raleigh after being appointed postmaster by President Ulysses S. Grant. William Woods Holden died in 1892 and is buried at Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.