Holden was the second governor in American history to be impeached, and the first to be removed from office. He is the only North Carolina governor to have been impeached. In 2011, Holden was posthumously pardoned by the North Carolina Senate.
Holden was born and raised near what is now Eno River State Park in present-day Orange County, North Carolina. At age of 10, he began a six-year apprenticeship with Dennis Heartt at the Hillsborough Recorder newspaper (in Hillsborough, North Carolina). By age 19, Holden was working as a printer and writer at the Raleigh Star, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He then 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, changing its party affiliation to the Democratic party. When Holden took over the newspaper, it was struggling financially. Under his leadership, it became one of the most widely read newspapers in the state.
In December 1843, Holden became a delegate to the Democratic state party convention, where 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. By 1858, he was chairman of the party. That year, he unsuccessfully attempted to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (losing to John W. Ellis), and then his party passed him over for a U.S. Senate seat.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Holden advocated for 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. Accordingly, Holden 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. When President Abraham Lincoln called on North Carolina to provide troops to militarily suppress the seceding states, however, Holden joined in a unanimous vote to secede from the Union.
As the Civil War progressed, Holden became an outspoken critic of the Confederate government, and became a leader of the North Carolina peace movement. In 1864, he was the unsuccessful "peace candidate" against the incumbent Governor Zebulon B. Vance. Vance won overwhelmingly, and Holden carried only three counties: Johnston, Randolph, and Wilkes.
When the Civil War ended on May 9, 1865, Holden was appointed Governor on May 29,by President Andrew Johnson. He played a central role in stabilizing the state during the early days of Reconstruction (he placed the newspaper the Standard in the hands of his son, Joseph W. Holden). But 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, so he returned to editing the Standard, and became president of the North Carolina Union League, and organized the North Carolina Republican Party 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, but Holden's efforts to suppress the Klan exceeded those of other Southern governors. With new powers granted to him by the State Legislature under the 1870 Shoffner Act, 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 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, Governor Holden 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, he was convicted on six of the eight charges against him by the Democrats of the North Carolina Senate in straight party-line votes on March 22, 1871. Holden's son-in-law, Sen. 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 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. 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 African American police officer in the town of Graham in Alamance County, as well as numerous attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
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. In 2011, Holden was posthumously pardoned by the North Carolina Senate in a 48–0 vote.
After his removal from office, Holden moved to Washington, D.C., where he resumed work on a newspaper. He returned to Raleigh when President Ulysses 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.
Holden 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.