Attorney General Dick Thornburgh may be having his problems with political Washington, but he sure knows how to please a classroom of seventh-graders.

Thornburgh, who launched a volunteer tutor program last week by teaching a social studies class at Stuart-Hobson Middle School near Union Station, closed the 40-minute lesson with welcome words: "No homework!"

The students applauded and gave him rave reviews for his lesson on the Compromise of 1850 -- the measures passed by Congress 11 years before the Civil War in an attempt to settle several slavery issues and avoid dissolution of the Union.

Sarah Raimo liked Thornburgh's lesson. ""He's smart," she said.

For Marlin Parker and Beth O'Brien, it all boiled down to the no-homework decree. "He's really a good teacher," they raved.

And Christon Hill found no credence to what he called "the rumors" about the government's top lawyer. "They say he's not a good person . . . in the newspapers," Hill explained. "But that's false . . . . He's nice and outgoing. I expected him to be sort of old and slow."

Thornburgh's appearance kicked off the Justice Department's Legal Advocates in Education program, through which the attorney general hopes to match D.C. students with department volunteers, who will act as mentors or tutors. Volunteers will be granted up to eight hours' administrative leave each month to work with the students. About 150 department employees have already volunteered.

Thornburgh took the call to volunteerism to heart as he traveled to the school at Fourth and E streets NE. Seated at a small desk in front of the class, Thornburgh told the young students that while the issue of the Compromise of 1850 was slavery, the debate also highlighted states' rights. "The real issue was, 'Who calls the shots?' " Thornburgh said. "Do the state governments have the right to, on their own, decide these issues or does the federal government?

"This issue continues to this day," he said.

With the administration in the midst of delicate negotiations with the Senate on the 1990 Civil Rights Bill, the attorney general deftly navigated the civil rights waters surrounding the Compromise of 1850.

Originally looked on as "the salvation of the nation," the compromise was doomed because it was founded on injustice, he said.

"Today we recognize how totally unjust it was for the institution of slavery ever to have existed in this country . . . . And of course we still pay a lot of the price for the existence of that institution today. We're constantly striving to assure that everyone has an equal opportunity under our system to succeed."

Thornburgh seemed sorry to see the class end, saying this day would allow him to brag to his wife, once a third-grade teacher, that he had taught school too.

Principal Veola Jackson said Thornburgh has an open invitation to teach there any time. He was "motivating and personable," and "skillful at asking questions," she said.

Would she give him an A?

"Well, an A is outstanding," she said. "I'd give him a B." Then she relented. "That was an unfamiliar room . . . and he walked off the street cold. Considering that . . . okay, give him an A."