A. Linwood Holton Jr. was born on September 21, 1923 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. His father was "the executive of a small coal-hauling railroad".
Holton entered Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1941. After the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the United States Navy on July 4, 1942. He received a commission after graduating in 1944 and served on active duty submarine service throughout World War II and in the reserves for more than two decades afterwards. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949. Prior to entering politics, he was an attorney in Roanoke, Virginia.
Holton was active in the Republican Party when it barely existed in Virginia. He was one of the leading Republicans who fought the Byrd Organization during the three decades it dominated Virginia politics.
In 1965, Holton ran for governor as the Republican candidate and was defeated by Democrat Mills E. Godwin Jr. In 1969, Holton won 52.51% of the vote in the gubernatorial election, defeating Democrat William C. Battle, Virginia Conservative Beverly B. McDowell, American Independent William A. Pennington, and Independent George R. Walker. He became the first Republican governor of Virginia since 1869.
In 1970, when desegregation was an issue in Virginia, Holton voluntarily placed his children, including future First Lady of Virginia Anne Holton, in the mostly-black Richmond public schools, garnering much publicity.
As governor, he increased employment of blacks and women in state government, created the Virginia Governor's Schools Program in 1973, provided the first state funds for community mental health centers, and supported environmental efforts.
A moderate Republican, Holton was against welcoming conservative Byrd Democrats into the Virginia Republican Party, and the increasingly conservative GOP turned its back on Holton. When Harry F. Byrd Jr. broke ranks with the increasingly liberal Virginia Democratic party and ran as an independent for the Senate in 1970, Holton insisted on running a Republican candidate rather than endorsing an independent. That eventually led to the nomination of Ray Garland. Byrd went on to win the three-way election with an absolute majority.
Holton also encouraged a moderate Republican to run in the special election in 1971 to choose a successor for deceased Lieutenant Governor J. Sargeant Reynolds, an election that was won by another independent, populist Henry Howell.
In 1973, Mills Godwin, the conservative former Democrat who had defeated Holton in the 1965 election, was the Republican nominee. Godwin had supported massive resistance to racial integration and had first identified himself as a Republican in his speech accepting the Virginia Republican convention's nomination for governor. Holton was not eligible to run in 1973, as Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms.
Following his term as governor, Holton served one year in the Nixon Administration as the Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations. After leaving Washington, he practiced law as a shareholder at McCandlish Holton, P.C. He later served as President of the Center for Innovative Technology.
Holton later unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the United States Senate in 1978, finishing third in a race against Richard D. Obenshain, John Warner, and Nathan H. Miller. Warner later become the nominee after Obenshain's death in a plane crash.
After his retirement, Holton had supported moderate Republicans, including John Warner. As the Virginia Republican Party became more conservative, however, he found himself more in line with the state Democratic Party and endorsed several Democrats for statewide office, including his son-in-law, Governor Tim Kaine. Holton endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest.
The Holtons have four children: Tayloe, Anne, Woody, and Dwight. Anne Holton is married to U.S. Senator and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, the nominee of the Democratic Party for Vice President in 2016. She was the first First Lady of Virginia to live in Virginia's Executive Mansion both as a child and as a First Lady. In January 2014, Anne Holton was named Virginia Secretary of Education. Woody Holton (Abner Linwood Holton III) has published three books, including Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999). His third book, a biography of Abigail Adams, won the Bancroft Prize in 2010. Dwight Holton served as acting U.S. Attorney for Oregon from 2010 to 2011. He later lost to Ellen Rosenblum in the May 2012 primary in the race for Oregon Attorney General.
In November 2005, Holton underwent surgery for bladder cancer. The University of Virginia Press published his memoir, Opportunity Time, in March 2008. He has been a long-time member of the Governing Council of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
In 1999, Linwood Holton Elementary School, in Richmond, Virginia, was named in his honor.