William Woods Holden was born an illegitimate child near Hillsborough and, at age ten, was apprenticed as a printer’s devil to local publisher Dennis Heartt.
In 1843 Holden gained control of the North Carolina Standard,
a Democratic newspaper based in Raleigh. More than any other person, Holden revived the Democratic Party and led it to dominance during the decade of the 1850s. Holden used the Standard to promote a new Conservative Party, which in 1862 nominated Zebulon B. Vance for governor. With his paper spearheading the campaign, Holden led Vance to victory. In 1864 Holden and Governor Vance disagreed on how to conduct the war, however, and faced off as opponents in the election. Most citizens agreed with Vance that continuing the war was preferable to the dishonor of deserting sister states. Holden suffered a humiliating defeat.
On May 20, 1865, President Andrew Johnson called Holden to Washington, DC and appointed him provisional governor of North Carolina effective May 29. The 1865 convention called for a gubernatorial election on November 9, 1865. The Conservatives selected Jonathan Worth, whom Holden had appointed state treasurer, to oppose the provisional governor. Worth won the contest by almost 6,000 votes. Reconstruction provided the perfect venue for William W. Holden to make another bid for governor and he successfully attained his goal in 1868.
Holden vowed to destroy the Ku Klux Klan and made some ill-advised decisions capped by the "Kirk-Holden War" that ended his political career.
Notified that he had been impeached by the North Carolina House of Representatives, Holden turned over duties of his office to Lieutenant Governor Tod R. Caldwell on December 20. The trial began on January 30, 1871, and lasted nearly three months. On March 22, 1971 the North Carolina Senate found Holden guilty on the most serious charges and ordered him removed from office.