Holton is the son of former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., the brother of former Virginia First Lady Anne Holton, the wife of U.S. Senator and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, the nominee of the Democratic Party for vice president in 2016. He earned a B.A. in English at the University of Virginia, where he wrote for the Cavalier Daily, in 1981. He received his Ph.D. in history from Duke University in 1990. He is married to Gretchen Schoel, a student of the impact of the internet on intercultural communication. They have a daughter.
Holton worked for several years on behalf on environmental causes. In 1990, he created Clean Up Congress (CUC), a political action committee described by Open Secrets as "Democrat/liberal" group. In 1994, CUC waged a campaign to defeat Oliver North's 1994 bid for Virginia's Senate seat (North lost by 3% of the vote to Chuck Robb).
From 1981 to 1983, he served as a legislative aide in the Virginia General Assembly for Delegate Robert T. Andrews (R-McLean). Characterized in the Washington Post as an energetic "young tiger", he helped Andrews draft and win the enactment of Virginia's first child safety seat law, changes to the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP) for post-conviction referral, and other legislation.
He began teaching at the University of Richmond in 2000 as an assistant professor, rising to professor in 2011.
His essay titled "Divide et Impera: The Tenth Federalist in a Wider Sphere" was selected for inclusion in Best American History Essays 2006 by the Organization of American Historians.
He published Unruly Americans in 2007.
Holton's Abigail Adams was awarded the Bancroft Prize for 2010. The book focuses on the role of creditors and bond speculators in the creation of the US Constitution by examining the financial acumen of one of America's earliest and most aggressive female investors.
In July 2012, Holton became the McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, though he remained in Rickmond for another year on a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- 2000 Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians for Forced Founders
- 2007 National Book Award finalist for Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
- 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2010 Bancroft Prize for Abigail Adams
- Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1999, ISBN 978-0-8078-4784-8
- Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Macmillan, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8090-8061-8
- Abigail Adams, Simon and Schuster, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4165-4680-1
- Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era: A Brief History with Documents, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009, ISBN 978-0-312-41359-0
- Statistics Of The Congressional Election Of November 8, 1994
- Keeping Score (article about CUC)
- "Holton's Rebellion", April 16, 2008, Style Weekly
- Maier, Pauline (November 18, 2007). "The Framers' Real Motives". Washington Post. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- "The Bancroft Prizes: Previous Awards". Columbia University Libraries. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- "University of Richmond history professor receives Guggenheim fellowship." April 3, 2008. http://oncampus.richmond.edu/news/april08/Holton.html
- Kapsidelis, Karin (April 3, 2013). "History professor Woody Holton leaves UR for USC". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- "Merle Curti Award Winners". Organization of American Historians. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- Garber, Dwight (October 10, 2007). "The NBA Shortlist". New York Times. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- "Wood Holton". John Simon Guggernheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved July 28, 2016.
- "Woody Holton wins Bancroft Prize for book, Abigail Adams". University of Richmond. March 17, 2010. Retrieved July 28, 2016.