north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     William Woods Holden (1818-1892) was a central figure in the state’s Civil War and Reconstruction era. Born near Hillsborough to unmarried parents, he was raised by his stepmother. At age ten, he was apprenticed as a printer’s devil to local publisher Dennis Heartt. The proximity to the press and to public issues of the day shaped Holden’s life and career from that point. He worked for other newspapers as he grew into adulthood. Although lacking formal education, Holden studied law under Raleigh attorney Henry Watkins Miller and passed the bar in 1841.

In 1843 Holden purchased ownership of the North Carolina Standard, a Raleigh publication regarded as the chief Democratic newspaper in the state. As editor and publisher of the Standard, Holden became a major champion for reform. More than any other person, he revived the Democratic Party and led it to dominance during the decade of the 1850s. In 1844 he was elected to the House of Commons. He was unable to translate his political power and influence into a candidacy for governorship, however, as he was regarded as an outsider by the wealthy planter elite. Although a supporter of slavery expansion who at times had supported secession, by 1860 Holden had moved into the Unionist camp. Nevertheless, when the war broke out Holden was elected to the state convention and voted for secession. During the Civil War, 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. As the war dragged on, Holden became the primary leader of the peace movement in the state. This led to a political and personal break with Vance. In 1864 Holden ran for governor against Vance. Vilified by Confederate supporters within and without the state, and occurring at a time when growing fears of a Union victory was leading to a hardening of views on continuation of the war, Holden suffered a humiliating defeat.

On May 20, 1865, President Andrew Johnson called Holden to Washington and appointed him provisional governor of North Carolina effective May 29. The 1865 convention called for a gubernatorial election on November 9. 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. The onset of Radical Reconstruction provided Holden a fresh opportunity for a gubernatorial run, and he was elected in 1868. Holden’s decision to use armed force to suppress the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan, capped by the so-called “Kirk-Holden War led to large-scale opposition from the state’s political elite, many of whom were members of the Klan themselves or at least tacitly supported its goals and methods of using paramilitary violence to restore as much of the old white supremacist political order as current circumstances allowed. Notified that he had been impeached by the 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, the North Carolina Senate found Holden guilty on the most serious charges and ordered him removed from office, ending his political career. Holden is the only Chief Executive in North Carolina history to be impeached and removed from office, and was the first in the nation to have been so.

For a while Holden edited a newspaper in Washington, D.C., then accepted the job of postmaster in Raleigh. A stroke on April 2, 1882, forced his retirement from public service. He died on March 1, 1892, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. Holden married twice, first to Ann Augusta Young of Baltimore in 1841, and, after her 1854 death, to Louisa Virginia Harrison of Raleigh. Each marriage produced four children. Holden’s house, at the corner of Hargett and McDowell Streets in Raleigh, was razed in 1925 to make way for the Professional Building now on the site.

William K. Boyd, ed., Memoirs of W. W. Holden (1911)
Edgar Folk and Bynum Shaw, W. W. Holden (1982)
“The Governor Holden Home,” The State, February 3, 1951
Governors’ Papers: William Woods Holden, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh
William C. Harris, William Woods Holden: Firebrand of North Carolina Politics (1988)
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (2007)
William Woods Holden Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham
Thomas M. Pittman, “William Woods Holden,” in Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, III, 184-206
Horace W. Raper, “Holden, William Woods,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 169-171
Horace W. Raper, William W. Holden (1985)
Horace W. Raper and Thornton W. Mitchell, eds., The Papers of William Woods Holden, Volume I (2000)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

Gov. William Woods Holden

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources