William Woods Holden

35th Governor of the State of North Carolina - 1865 and 1868 to 1870

Date Born: November 24, 1818

Date Died: March 1, 1892

Place Born: Orange County, NC

Place Buried: Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC

Residence: Hillsborough, NC

Occupation: Newspaper Owner/Editor


William Woods Holden was born on November 24, 1818 in Orange County, NC, the illegitimate son of Thomas Holden and Priscilla Woods. At ten years old, Holden began a six-year apprenticeship with Dennis Heartt at the Hillsborough Recorder newspaper, who was responsible for his early education and political views. Striking out on his own at age sixteen, he first worked as a printer for the Milton Chronicle, then for a Danville, VA paper (in which his own compositions were first published), and later, in 1836, for the Raleigh Star which was edited by Thomas Lemay..

Despite the lack of formal education, William Woods Holden studied law at night under Henry Watkins Miller of Raleigh and received his license to practice law on January 1, 1841. Although he could have played a major role in city politics and civic affairs, the legal profession did not offer the fascination of newspaper work. Thus, when the North Carolina Standard, the official organ of the Democratic party in North Carolina, was made available in 1842, Holden purchased control. Through it he became the state's most militant champion of minorities, reform, and state ideals. He served as publisher and editor of the North Carolina Standard until elected governor in 1868.

In 1841, William Woods Holden married Ann Augusta Young, daughter of John Wynne Young and Nancy (Peace) Young of Baltimore, MD. They had four known children.

In December of 1843, William Woods Holden began his Democratic Party activism as a delegate to the North Carolina Democratic Party convention, where he was elected to the NC Democratic Party executive committee. Later he served as state printer; a member of the Literary Board and the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina; and commissioner of the deaf and dumb institution and of the insane asylum.

In 1846, William Woods Holden was elected as one of three men to represent Wake County in the NC House of Commons of the:
- 66th General Assembly that met from 1846-1847

In 1854, William Woods Holden married a second time, to Louisa Virginia Harrison, daughter of Robert Harrison of Raleigh, NC. They too had four known children.

By 1858, William Woods Holden was chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. That year, he unsuccessfully attempted to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (losing to John Willis Ellis), and then his party passed him over for a U.S. Senate seat.

In 1861, William Woods Holden was sent to the NC Secession Convention to vote against secession by the voters of Wake County. After President Abraham Lincoln called on North Carolina to provide troops to militarily suppress the seceding states, however, Holden joined in the unanimous vote to secede from the Union.

As the Civil War progressed, Holden became an outspoken critic of the Confederate government, and also a leader of the North Carolina peace movement. In 1864, he was the unsuccessful "peace candidate" against incumbent Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance. Vance won overwhelmingly, and Holden carried only three counties: Johnston, Randolph, and Wilkes.

On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed William Woods Holden as the next "provisional" Governor of North Carolina, and he served under December 15, 1865. He played a central role in stabilizing the state during the early days of Reconstruction (he placed the North Carolina Standard in the hands of his son, Joseph W. Holden). He was defeated by Jonathan Worth in a special 1865 election for governor.

President Andrew Johnson nominated William Woods Holden to be minister to El Salvador, but the U.S. Senate rejected his nomination. He returned to editing the North Carolina Standard, became President of the NC Union League, and organized the Republican Party in the state during 1866–67.

In 1868, William Woods Holden was elected by the population as the next Governor of North Carolina, and he served from July 1, 1868 to December 15, 1870. He then gave up editorship and ownership of the North Carolina Standard.

To combat the Ku Klux Klan, Gov. Holden hired two dozen detectives in 1869–70. The detective unit was not overly successful in limiting Klan activities, but Gov. Holden's efforts to suppress the Klan exceeded those of all other Southern governors. He called out the state militia against the Klan in 1870, imposed martial law in two counties, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus for accused leaders of the Klan in what became known as the Kirk-Holden war. The result was a political backlash, accompanied by violence at the time of the election to suppress the black vote. The Republicans lost the legislative election.

After the Democratic Party regained majorities in both houses of the state legislature in 1870, Gov. Holden was impeached by the NC House of Representatives on December 14, 1870. Despite being defended by well-known attorneys such as Nathaniel Boyden and William Nathan Harrell Smith, he was convicted on six of the eight charges against him by the Democrats of the NC Senate in straight party-line votes on March 22, 1871. Holden's son-in-law, NC Senator Lewis P. Olds, was among those who voted against removal. The other two charges received majority votes, but not the required two-thirds majorities.

The main charges against Gov. Holden were related to the rough treatment and arrests of North Carolina citizens by state militia officer Col. George W. Kirk during the enforcement of Reconstruction civil rights legislation. Gov. Holden had formed the state militia to respond to the assassination of Republican senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870, and the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw, an black police officer in the town of Graham in Alamance County, as well as numerous attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.

William Woods Holden was the first governor in American history to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Gov. Charles L. Robinson of Kansas was the first American governor to be impeached, however, without conviction and removal.

After his removal from office, William Woods Holden moved to Washington, DC, where he resumed work on a newspaper. He then returned to Raleigh when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as Postmaster, serving from 1873 to 1881. Raleigh Republicans persuaded President James Garfield not to re-appoint him to his post, and Holden subsequently left the party.

On March 1, 1892, William Woods Holden died, and he was buried at the Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


William Woods Holden (24 November 1818 – 1 March 1892) was the governor of North Carolina in 1865 and from 1868 to 1871. He was a "Scalawag" and leader of the state's Republican party during Reconstruction.

Holden was born and raised near what is now Eno River State Park in present-day Durham County. Around the age of 10, he began a six-year apprenticeship with Dennis Heartt at the Hillsborough Recorder newspaper (in Hillsborough, North Carolina). By the age of 19, Holden was working as a printer and writer at the Raleigh Star, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1841, and became a member of the Whig party. In 1843, he became owner and editor of the North Carolina Standard newspaper, and changed party affiliation to the Democratic party (the Standard was a Democratic paper, and Holden had difficulty with the aristocratic tendencies of some Whigs). When Holden took over the paper, it was struggling financially, but it became one of the most widely-read newspapers in the state under his leadership.

In December 1843, Holden officially began his Democratic Party activism as a delegate to the state party convention, and he was elected to the North Carolina Democratic Party state executive committee. In 1846, Holden was elected by Wake County voters to the North Carolina House of Commons. He did not run for re-election after serving one term. As the "eloquent propagandist" of the Democratic Party, Holden was a key contributor to his party's successes in 1850, which ended years of Whig dominance in the state. In 1858, he unsuccessfully attempted to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (losing to John W. Ellis), and then his party passed him over for a US Senate seat.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Holden advocated Southern rights to expand slavery and at times championed the right of secession, but by 1860 he had shifted his position to support the Union. He and his newspaper fell out of favor with the state Democratic Party, and he was removed as the state's printer, when he cautiously editorialized against secession in 1860. In 1861, Holden was sent to a State Convention to vote against secession by the voters of Wake County. But after President Abraham Lincoln called on North Carolina to provide troops to militarily suppress the seceding states, Holden joined in the unanimous vote to secede from the Union.

As the Civil War progressed, Holden became an outspoken critic of the Confederate government, and also a leader of the North Carolina peace movement. In 1864, he was the unsuccessful "peace candidate" against incumbent Governor Zebulon B. Vance. Vance won overwhelmingly, and Holden carried only three counties: Johnston, Randolph, and Wilkes.

After the war's end in 1865, Holden was appointed Governor by President Andrew Johnson, and played a central role in stabilizing the state during the first days of Reconstruction (he placed the Standard in the hands of his son, Joseph W. Holden). He was defeated by Jonathan Worth in a special 1865 election for governor. Johnson then nominated Holden to be minister to El Salvador, but the Senate rejected his nomination. He returned to editing the Standard, became president of the North Carolina Union League, and organized the Republican Party in the state in 1866-67. While voters were approving the new state constitution, Holden was elected governor at the head of the Republican ticket in 1868, defeating Thomas Samuel Ashe. When he was elected governor, Holden gave up editorship and ownership of the Standard.

To combat the Ku Klux Klan, Holden hired two dozen detectives in 1869-70. The detective unit was not overly successful in limiting Klan activities, yet Holden's efforts to suppress the Klan exceeded those of other Southern governors. When he called out the militia against the Klan in 1870, imposed martial law in two counties, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus for accused leaders of the Klan, the result was a political backlash that lost the Republicans the upcoming legislative election.

After the Democratic Party regained majorities in both houses of the state legislature, he was impeached by the North Carolina House of Representatives on December 14, 1870. Despite being defended by well-known attorneys such as Nathaniel Boyden and William Nathan Harrell Smith, Holden was convicted on six of the eight charges against him by the North Carolina Senate in straight party-line votes on March 22, 1871. The other two charges received majority votes, but not the required two-thirds majorities. Holden was the first governor in American history to be impeached and removed from office (although Gov. Charles L. Robinson of Kansas was the first American governor to be impeached).

After being removed from office, he moved to Washington, DC where he again worked for a newspaper. A few years later he returned to Raleigh, where President Ulysses Grant appointed him postmaster from 1873 to 1881. Raleigh Republicans persuaded President James Garfield not to re-appoint him to his post, and Holden subsequently left the party. He died in 1892 and is buried at Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

He was recognized as "one of the foremost men in intellectual power and daring that were ever born here" by North Carolinian Walter Hines Page.


William Woods Holden, governor of North Carolina, was born near Hillsborough, NC on November 24, 1818. His early education was attained in the common schools of his native state. He later studied law and in 1841 was admitted to the bar. Holden also established a successful career in the newspaper business. He started when he was ten years old, working as an apprentice at the Hillsborough Recorder. He eventually worked at the Raleigh Star, and later became owner and editor of the North Carolina Standard. Holden entered politics as a Whig, but in 1843 he joined the Democratic Party, and later still became a Republican in 1867. In his first political position, he served as a member of the NC House of Commons, an office he held from 1846 to 1847. He also served as a delegate to the 1861 Secession Convention, joining the vote to secede from the Union. However, his views changed, and he later promoted peace, as well as criticizing the Confederate government. President Andrew Johnson appointed Holden the Provisional Governor on May 29, 1865. Three years later he was re-elected to a second non-consecutive term. During his tenure, anti- Ku Klux Klan acts were sanctioned; and corruption accusations, as well as misappropriation charges were launched against his administration. Holden was impeached and removed from office. He then moved to Washington, DC, where he resumed his newspaper career. In 1873 he returned to North Carolina and became the Postmaster of Raleigh, a post he held until his death. Governor William W. Holden passed away on March 1, 1892, and was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.
Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the book, entitled "Argument in the Impeachment Trial of W.W. Holden, Governor of North Carolina," printed in 1871.
Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF File of the book, entitled "Memoirs of W.W. Holden," published in 1911.

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